Democrats see in the upcoming election an opportunity to advance Colorado’s blue shift by increasing their statehouse majorities, ousting Cory Gardner, flipping the largest congressional district in the state and winning back control of the University of Colorado system for the first time in decades.
But they also see limits to the blue wave, specifically because of unique constraints here on government spending.
It’s possible that even as Democrats stand a good chance to win control of more elected positions, fiscal policy in the state will drift a bit further to the right. Depending on the outcome of four ballot measures relating to taxes and fees, Democratic spending ambitions — already profoundly altered by the coronavirus-inspired economic recession — could be further constrained.
Republicans take comfort in the fiscal controls of the state, even as they have hemorrhaged seats at the state legislature and elsewhere in recent years, and may see additional losses in November.
“There’s a real dichotomy between the way people in Colorado think about electing their representatives and funding their state’s programs. They just don’t match,” said state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who serves on the influential Joint Budget Committee. “I’m all for it. That’s our only tool.”
Rankin is among a slew of GOP politicians worried about being washed away in a blue wave election this year. He serves a rural district in northwest Colorado that includes Craig, Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs, and where roughly 40% of voters are unaffiliated. The GOP won that seat by 10 points in 2016, and the fact that it may now be in play speaks to a political climate Rankin summed up with a nervous laugh: “If I lose my election, I’m going to blame Donald Trump.”
Lauren Boebert, the Republican nominee for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Rankin’s district and covers close to half the land mass of the state, also has a competitive race. The GOP held the 3rd District by 9 points in 2018 — down from 14 in 2016 — and Democrats expect it to be closer this time around.
Boebert, who upset Rep. Scott Tipton in the June primary, was a political unknown until recently. She faces Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, a former state legislator who lost to Tipton two years ago, and the Cook Political Report says the district leans in Boebert’s favor, but is close.
No matter how that race turns out, Democrats stand a very good chance of growing their ranks in the state’s congressional delegation. Before the 2018 election, five of the state’s nine U.S. representatives and senators were Republicans. It’s 5-4 now in the other direction, and Democrats are favored by both polls and pundits to pick up U.S. Sen. Gardner’s seat. A Mitsch Bush win could push the ratio to 7-2 for the Democrats.
Democrats already control virtually all of statewide government, but the CU Board of Regents has eluded them even as they’ve won enormous gains elsewhere. The board majority is 5-4 now for the GOP, but three seats are open in this election, and Democrats and Republicans alike say the power dynamic could easily shift in November. That would give Democrats control of the statewide body for the first time in 41 years.
They are almost certain to win two of the three open seats. The one in question is in the 6th Congressional District, represented in Congress by Democrat Jason Crow. Shifting demographics and Trump helped turn the seat blue in 2018 after many previous years of failed attempts to unseat then-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman. Just two years after the flip, Cook doesn’t regard the district as competitive this year — a promising sign for those seeking a new Regents majority.
Outgoing Regent Irene Griego, a Democrat who declined to seek reelection after nine years on the board, said that such a change would be transformational for the state’s largest university system.
“It will be a board that will be very progressive in terms of social reform, diversity and inclusion and equity, where the basic values of social justice will be addressed,” she said. “It’s going to be hopefully, finally, an open conversation about climate change and what we need to do in the future, looking at that from a research perspective and a data-driven perspective.”
But Colorado has for years ranked in the bottom five among all states for higher education spending per student, and the challenge is only steepening now, amid an unexpected recession. Griego said she’s under no delusion about how budget constraints would hamper a potential Democrat-controlled board.
“We need more funding to be able to do the things we need to do, to do the research we need to do, to be able to serve our students,” she said. “We’re functioning on so little.”
Republican lawmakers in Colorado are generally of the belief that the state budget does not need to grow to accommodate the needs of the CU system, public schools and transportation projects.
“We don’t have an income problem. We have a spending problem,” said Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican state senator from Sterling who helped champion an income tax cut proposal that’s on the ballot this year. “Until this legislature prioritizes spending for what the people of Colorado want — you know, they want unaccountable access to money.”
Democrats consistently retort that prioritizing spending in underfunded areas sounds easy until you start the work of figuring out which programs should lose money to make that happen. The recession forced lawmakers to curb spending plans by 25% this past spring, and that exercise proved quite painful for some lawmakers and programs.
It’s been two years since Democrats won control of the state Senate from Republicans. The margin is 19-16 now, and it would surprise no one if Democrats picked up another seat in November, thus bettering the chances of more progressive legislation next session. The Democrats control the House 41-24 and may also expand that majority this year, though their advantage is so substantial that adding a 42nd or 43rd seat — or losing one or two — may not make or break any bills.
There have been enormous and varied consequences of the Democratic takeover at the Capitol: They’ve expanded labor protections and bargaining rights, passed major criminal justice and police reforms, overhauled the system of regulating the oil and gas industry and stiffened gun safety laws, among many initiatives that would not have been possible under a split legislature.
But they cannot raise taxes without a vote of the people, because of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a voter-approved fiscal device unique to Colorado. For Republicans, it’s a sacred part of the state Constitution and a strong defense against new proposals to generate revenue. Many chronic funding issues have festered under Democratic control of state government, and it’s hard to imagine that changing even if they bolster their majorities through the election.
“When it comes to K-12, higher education, we can’t snap our fingers and increase the state budget,” said Boulder’s Steve Fenberg, the Senate majority leader. “We’re in a worse place now than we were two years ago, when we were already toward the bottom of the country.”
There are four ballot measures this year that propose notable fiscal changes for Colorado: an across-the-board income tax cut (Proposition 116), a new constraint on the legislature’s ability to install certain new fees (Proposition 117), a new tax on tobacco and nicotine products (Proposition EE) and a repeal of the Gallagher Amendment (Amendment B), which affects property taxation rates.
Props. 116 and 117 would mean less revenue for a state already staring down a difficult climb out of this recession. Prop. EE and Amendment B would add revenue. They’ve had to scale back their spending plans since March, and — particularly if the revenue-adding measures does not pass — the prospect of two new, conservative-led fiscal restraints passing would represent two steps to the right.
Either way, the recession has already ensured that Democrats simply won’t be able to pursue some — and possibly most — new initiatives next year that come with price tags.
“There are a number of tools that we will continue to use with our Democratic majorities to improve the lives of Coloradans that do not require state dollars,” said Emily Sirota, a progressive first-term state representative from Denver.
But, she acknowledged: “When you have fewer resources to work with, your ability to address problems becomes narrowed.”
Added Fenberg, “Just because we have fiscal constraints doesn’t mean our majorities can’t deliver on issues our voters care about. But, yes, we are limited. We can’t do what every other state can do on this scenario.”
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