Sour voters in Denver

There may be lessons for Seattle in the widespread rejection of revenue relief (and paid sick leave) in Colorado, as well as some gambits for bigger fixes.

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper

There may be lessons for Seattle in the widespread rejection of revenue relief (and paid sick leave) in Colorado, as well as some gambits for bigger fixes.

Local leaders might cast an eye on the Denver area for an indication of voters' souring moods in progressive, educated Western cities. A series of meaningful ballot issues and local elections in Colorado showed voters in no mood, even faced with draconian cuts in governmental services, to boost taxes.

Colorado is squeezed, even more than Washington, by tax limitation measures that require any tax increase to be voted on by the people. This principle was enshrined as an amendment to the state constitution in 1992. Hence, there are various attempts to end run this kind of Eymanism. Prop. 103, for example, would have boosted income and sales taxes to help education. It just failed with the voters by two-to-one. Many other tax increases, even in affluent suburbs, lost.

Meanwhile, several other measures show an impatience with the rate of school reform, putting pro-voucher candidates and other reformers into office. In Denver, the proposal for a Seattle-style requirement of paid sick leave ran into massive resistance by the voters, defeating the idea by two-to-one.

One interpretation of these votes is that voters are interested in a Big Fix for the state's tax structure, but that they are not yet convinced that government is run efficiently or has squeezed out enough waste. If true, that makes voters impatient with band-aid measures such as Prop. 103, which would have pumped $3 billion into education for a five-year period only. Such measures, like the two-year fix for Metro recently passed by the King County Council, are indicative of emergency patches, with limited popularity.

Colorado is talking about a big structural fix, and its new governor, former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who was neutral on Prop. 103, is trying to combine enough bipartisanship, governmental reform, and economic-development arguments to lead the state to such a solution. Here in Washington, Gov. Gregoire is on her way out of office, so unlikely to have the clout to lead such a discussion. A Gov. Rob McKenna would probably inject public-private partnerships, as on roads, as his way to get money without raising taxes. A Gov. Jay Inslee might content himself with tax proposals aimed at the rich that would cheer his base but probably not get anywhere.

One other ploy in Colorado is the let's-all-pull-together gambit of an Olympics bid. The state is famous for having rejected the 1976 Winter Games, when voters refused to raise the necessary funds. Now, late in the day, it is quietly trying to get into the competition for the 2022 Winter Games. Such events are shots in the arm to tourism, and they can also be the pretext for spending programs on transit, facilities, and housing. No such unifying crusades anywhere in sight in Washington state.


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