Colorado Rising Action Executive Director Michael Fields speaks during a "Commitment to Colorado" news conference at a Sinclair station on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

See the results of Prop. 120 and Amendment 78.

The battle over Proposition 120 and Amendment 78 on Colorado’s November ballot is about as lopsided as a political contest can get. 

On one side are conservative groups that have spent millions of dollars to ensure the passage of Proposition 120, which would cut property taxes, and Amendment 78, which would require legislative oversight of “custodial” spending. On the other side are liberals who warn that the measures would hurt state government, but who are spending no money to spread their message.

?️?️ ELECTION 2021: What you need to know to vote and about Proposition 119, Proposition 120 and Amendment 78. ?️?️

The deep-pocketed proponents are running digital ads and sending fliers to voters. Opponents are firing off emails to their networks, people who would probably vote against the measures even without the nudge. 

The uneven fight could serve as a preview for what to expect in years to come as Michael Fields, the conservative who leads Colorado Rising Action and is the architect of Proposition 120 and Amendment 78, vows to run similar tax-cutting campaigns well into the future. In fact, told Axios Denver he plans to pursue “a couple ballot initiatives” every year. 

Colorado Rising Action Executive Director Michael Fields speaks during a “Commitment to Colorado” news conference at a Sinclair gas station on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, in Denver. He told Axios Denver he plans to pursue “a couple ballot initiatives” every year. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Fields is already working on a sales tax reduction question for 2022. 

“I’m not ready to say that because there’s no money spent on this that there’s no money going to be spent on a defensive campaign again,” said Carol Hedges, who leads the liberal-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute, which opposes 78 and 120.

But she said the situation this year highlights the problem with making tax policy by ballot iniative, where the group with the deepest pockets often wins.

Colorado Republicans, as they have fallen out of power at the statehouse and in the congressional delegation, have begun placing more emphasis on passing ballot measures to advance their policy agenda. Democrats don’t seem all that interested — at least this year — in trying to stop them, in large part because it’s expensive and difficult to try to fight a tax cut. 

It’s even harder to try to do it year after year after year, liberals say.

“There’s a lot more interest from billionaires in funding tax cuts than tax hikes,” said Ian Silverii, a Democratic campaign consultant. 

At minimum, the lopsided spending is problematic because voters may not be getting the whole story on Amendment 78 and Proposition 120, Silverii said. 

Through Oct. 13, the Committee for Spending Transparency raised nearly $1.3 million to support Amendment 78, while Cut Property Taxes raised nearly $1.2 million to support Proposition 120. Much of the money raised by both groups came from nonprofit Unite for Colorado, which doesn’t disclose its donors.

Much of that money was spent gathering signatures to get the measures on the ballot.

But the dollars keep pouring in. Cut Property Taxes reported large donations totaling nearly $349,000 since Oct. 13. The Apartment Association of Metro Denver gave nearly $192,000 of that sum, while Colorado Rising State Action, another dark money nonprofit, gave $147,000.

A screenshot of an ad for Proposition 120 paid for by. Cut Property Taxes (Screenshot)

Liberal-leaning groups like the Bell Policy Center and Working Families Party have sent emails to rally their supporters to reject the measures. But The Colorado Sun couldn’t find any committees formed with the specific purpose of raising and spending money to stop the initiatives from passing. 

And in elections, the side with the most money gets its message out — and is often favored to win.

“I think a general sense of fatigue has set in,” said Scott Wasserman, who leads the Bell Policy Center, a liberal-leaning fiscal policy group that opposes 78 and 120. “There’s a dark-money Death Star hovering above Colorado right now — Unite for Colorado — firing unimaginable ballot measures at us. Their goal is to overwhelm the civic leadership of this state and its working.”

(Wasserman has filed two campaign finance complaints seeking to force Unite for Colorado to reveal its donors.)

Wasserman believes there’s no organized battle against Proposition 120 because “there’s some overconfidence that has set in around the idea the Supreme Court will uphold Senate Bill 293 and that the damage from that measure won’t be that bad.” 

When it comes to Amendment 78, Wasserman thinks there isn’t a big push to fight the measure because its true impact isn’t understood. Money coming into the state from the federal government and lawsuits, for instance, would have to go through state lawmakers before it could be distributed by the governor or the attorney general alone.

Supporters of Amendment 78 say it will ensure one person in state government can’t decide how millions of dollars are spent. Opponents fear it will slow distribution of disaster aid dollars, like the coronavirus stimulus money Colorado recently received from Congress.

State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who opposes both ballot measures, agrees with Wasserman’s take. He, too, opposes both measures. 

Hansen was a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 293, which slashed property tax rates, but only for two years, and created new property subcategories to dramatically lessen the effects of Proposition 120. 

Before the passage of 293, Proposition 120 would have caused an estimated $1 billion revenue hit for local governments across the state. After the passage of 293, the blow was lessened to about $50 million each in 2022 and 2023.

“I think Senate Bill 293 reduced the impact of 120 to the point that opponents did not think a ‘no’ campaign was needed or the best use of resources,” he said. “For 78, it is (such an) inside-the-Capitol type of issue that there is no clear opponent except perhaps the governor’s office.”

Fields, meanwhile, says he doesn’t know what to make of the lack of organized opposition to his ballot measures.

Here’s what he does know: “It’s hard enough to pass a ballot issue without organized opposition.”

Liberal groups haven’t always stayed out of the fight on conservative-backed fiscal ballot measures. In 2020, more than $2.2 million was spent opposing Proposition 116, which cut the state’s income tax rate, and Proposition 117, which requires voter approval for the creation of certain fee-funded state government programs known as “enterprises.” 

Proponents of the measures spent just under $3 million. And both initiatives passed.

 Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...