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Politics and Government

$10 million poured into 2019 election, but big money couldn’t push Proposition CC to passage

A look at the final campaign cash reports shows plenty of dark money on Proposition CC and two major players betting big on Proposition DD.

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Advocates for Proposition CC outspent the opposition by more than double but still lost in the statewide November election.

The two campaign committees behind the ballot question — Coloradans for Prosperity and Great Education Colorado — spent a combined $4.5 million on the failed effort, according to final campaign finance reports filed late last week.

Colorado voters  54% to 46% to reject Prop. CC, which would have ended the tax revenue caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

The measure’s opponents spent at least $1.8 million, most of it from dark money organizations that didn’t disclose the source of the campaign cash.

All told, the five issue committees spent more than $10 million in the 2019 election on the two statewide ballot initiatives. About $3.8 million of that spending backed the successful Proposition DD measure to legalize sports gambling.

Ten donors accounted for 80% of the money spent by the five committees, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of financial reports. The national nonprofit Americans for Prosperity, which led the opposition to Prop. CC, topped a list that also includes major sports betting firms, casinos and community organizations.

Not all the money spent in the election is reflected in the final reports. The spending by opponents of Prop. CC doesn’t include money spent by a nonprofit group on TV ads and mailers. A gap in the state’s campaign finance laws allowed Defend Colorado to avoid reporting those expenditures because nonprofits are only required to disclose such spending if that is their sole purpose. Defend Colorado is also active on other issues, such as oil and gas regulation. 

Defend Colorado spent at least $56,000 on Facebook ads opposing CC during October and November, according to the social media platform. The nonprofit also aired cable TV ads in Denver and Colorado Springs, but the FCC doesn’t require disclosure of ads on state-level issues. 

Americans for Prosperity, which typically backs conservatives and is supported by billionaire Charles Koch, spent nearly $1.7 million through a state-level issue committee of the same name. The national group went door-to-door contacting voters, sent mailers and aired digital, TV and radio ads opposing Prop. CC.

But it’s impossible to know where Americans for Prosperity got its cash. As a nonprofit, it isn’t required to disclose its donors, even if money is spent for political purposes. And a new Colorado law requiring more disclosure from nonprofit donors only applies to groups involved in candidate campaigns, not ballot issues.

In addition, No on CC, a committee formed by the Independence Institute, a limited-government nonprofit based in Denver, spent more than $182,000. Of that, $100,000 came from Defend Colorado, which wouldn’t disclose its donors when The Sun asked in October. The Independence Institute put in more than $52,000 in mostly in-kind services, while another nonprofit that doesn’t disclose donors, Colorado Rising Action, offered $12,750 in in-kind donations.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a kickoff event in support of Proposition CC, a 2019 ballot measure regarding TABOR spending caps. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Coloradans for Prosperity also tapped dark money to promote Prop. CC, with nonprofits North Fund donating $517,000, Strategic Victory Fund giving $500,000 and Education Reform Now Advocacy giving $400,000. Nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund, which spent nearly $11 million in Colorado’s 2018 election cycle, donated $100,000 about two weeks before the election.

Michael Fields, director of Colorado Rising Action, said dark money isn’t unusual in ballot initiatives. But he noted that Americans for Prosperity and Independence Institute are well known in Colorado.

“Obviously the pro-CC side spent a lot more than our side did,” Fields said. “The difference to me is that there are several funds on their side where we don’t know anything about them at all.”

The supporters of Prop. CC spent much of their $4.5 million on TV ads and mailers designed to demonstrate the state’s need for more revenue to improve roadways, classrooms and colleges. Under the ballot question, the state could have kept an estimated $542 million to $1.7 billion more in tax revenue in the next three years with plans to split the money evenly among K-12 education, higher education and transportation. Now the money is expected to be returned to taxpayers as rebates.

The pro-CC side’s biggest donor was former University of Denver Chancellor Daniel Ritchie, who gave $1 million to Coloradans for Prosperity, which amounted to about 23% of its funding. He also gave $50,000 to Great Education Colorado’s issue committee, which spent more than $147,000 to support Prop. CC.

MORE: Meet the million-dollar man behind Proposition CC on Colorado’s 2019 ballot

Several businesses also kicked in $10,000 or more to Coloradans for Prosperity immediately before or even after the Nov. 5 election. Lyft gave $15,000 on Nov. 4, and Uber gave the same amount on Nov. 22. Lobbying giant Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and public employee union AFSCME gave $10,000 in the final weeks, while Xcel Energy gave that amount in late November.

Meanwhile, proponents of Prop. DD to allow sports betting spent big even though voters narrowly approved that initiative 51% to 49%.

Draft Kings and FanDuel, the two largest sports wagering businesses, each gave nearly $1.4 million to the DD effort. Various Colorado casino companies made up the rest of the revenue.

Rising Sun