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A for sale sign sits outside a home in Colorado. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters rejected a Republican-backed effort to reduce some property taxes, a stinging defeat for conservatives who have increasingly turned to ballot measures to advance their policies as their statewide and legislative candidates keep losing.

The vote for Proposition 120 as of 10:30 p.m. was 57% in opposition to the ballot measure and 43% in favor with more than 1.1 million ballots counted. 

The ballot measure was failing by a wide margin in conservative strongholds like Mesa and Douglas counties. It was also falling short in El Paso County, the state’s most populous conservative county.

“There was a combination of confusion and people thinking that it was not a tax cut for them,” said Michael Fields, the architect of Proposition 120 who leads the conservative fiscal policy group Colorado Rising Action. 

Fields said the fact that voters in conservative counties were rejecting the measure was a clear sign that the policy was misunderstood. 

The failure of Proposition 120 surprised many Democrats, especially considering there was no money spent by liberal groups to fight the measure. Republicans dropped in excess of $1.5 million to try to pass the initiative.

“I think the voters who understand how stuff they care about gets funded turned out,” said Scott Wasserman, a Proposition 120 opponent who leads the liberal-leaning Bell Policy Center. “I think you had a very educated electorate that was in a ‘no’ kind of mood.”

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the defeat of Proposition 120 sends a strong message that Colorado voters recognize the funding challenges for schools and other public services. Property tax revenue funds schools and other local districts.

“Our public schools have been underfunded for well over a decade,” Baca-Oehlert said. “The fact that our voters recognize that and understand the need to support public services is a hopeful and happy outcome of this election, if those results hold.”

Proposition 120 would have reduced the property tax assessment rates for multifamily residential properties to 6.5% from 7.15% starting in 2022. It also would have dropped the rate for lodging properties to 26.4% from 29% under Proposition 120. 

Proponents of the measure said a property tax reduction for multifamily housing would reduce rents and encourage investment to ease the state’s housing shortage. Lower property taxes for lodging properties may have allowed businesses to expand and hire more employees.

Opponents argued that slashing property taxes might result in cuts to government services, including for schools and fire departments that rely on property tax revenue to operate.

Bonnie Doolittle, a 35-year-old Democrat and marketing professional who lives in Denver, said she voted against Proposition 120. In fact, she said she always votes against tax reductions. 

“You never reduce taxes,” Doolittle said. “The city is too big, there’s too many people. We need infrastructure. That takes money. Sorry about it, y’all, but we’re in it together, so you gotta pay your fair share.”

A voter casts his ballot at Mesa County Central Services on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Grand Junction. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Sabrina Balister, a 57-year-old Republican in Colorado Springs, had a different stance. 

“I voted yes for that one to help out homeowners,” Balister said. 

She said she believed the proposition would give homeowners a needed break and promote home ownership. 

The ballot question initially sought to reduce property taxes across the board, but Senate Bill 293, passed by state lawmakers this year, dramatically blunted the measure.

Senate Bill 293 created new subcategories of residential and commercial property in an effort to limit the effects of the ballot measure. It then drove down the assessment rates for those new categories, though by not as much as Proposition 120 would have.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Single-family properties are taxed on 6.9% of assessed value, down from from 7.15%
  • Multifamily properties are taxed on 6.8%, down from 7.15%
  • The rate for agricultural property dropped to 26.4%, from 29%
  • Property used to produce renewable energy is taxed on 26.4% of assessed value, down from 29%

There’s a big catch, however. The rate decreases under Senate Bill 293 apply only in the 2022 and 2023 tax years. After that, state lawmakers must decide whether to continue with the lower assessment rates or raise them to their previous levels. 

Fields vowed to file a lawsuit to invalidate Senate Bill 293 if Proposition 120 passed. 

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)

Opponents had warned that Proposition 120 would have caused a $1 billion tax hit if Fields’ legal action was successful.  

The spending for and against Proposition 120 was lopsided.

Cut Property Taxes, which supported the ballot measure, spent more than $407,000 in the final two weeks before the election on digital and radio advertising. Overall, the group raised and spent more than $1.5 million, with about $870,000 of that going to signature gathering to get the measure on the ballot.

Dark-money group Unite for Colorado, which doesn’t disclose its donors, gave $875,000 to the issue committee, while Colorado Rising State Action, another dark money nonprofit, gave $347,000. And the Apartment Association of Metro Denver gave nearly $242,000.

The Colorado Sun couldn’t identify any groups spending against Proposition 120, and the Secretary of State’s Office didn’t identify any opposing issue committees.

Colorado Sun staff writers Olivia Prentzel, Thy Vo, Daniel Ducassi and Erica Breunlin contributed to this report. Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish also contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....