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« Why Refs C&D Are Like Passover | Main | If You Don't Pass This Bill, We'll Shoot This Blog »

Referendum C - What Went Wrong, Where Do We Go?

With Referendum C passing by about 52-48 yesterday, TABOR limits are essentially repealed for the next five years. Regardless of what proponents say (and don't those proponents just say the darndest things?), the money can be used for anything, anywhere, anytime they like. However, the baseline income tax rate will be reduced in five years, and barring any new referenda, TABOR limits will also return then. Naturally, the fear here is that a psychological boundary has been crossed, one that will make it easier to pass new taxing and spending measures in the future.

What Went Wrong? Basically, this loss was a comprehensive, although not massive, failure of Republican and fiscally conservative leadership in the state. Once the Governor gave the game away by not coming up with effective counterproposals, we couldn't count on a unified Republican response. Despite this, the measure still only passed by 4 points statewide, which means that the argument was not only winnable, it was almost won.

The remaining state leadership - the House Republicans, John Andrews, the Independence Institute, and the Club for Growth, failed to work together effectively. Each group maintained its own websites, its own financing, its own commercials, and its own message. One example: I had no idea where to get lawnsigns or bumper stickers. I live on Monaco effing Parkway for crying out loud. You don't think that getting a few thousand cars a day to see a yardsign on private property would have made some difference? When your entire morning commute consists of Red-Yellow-and-Blue-plastered medians, a certain sense of inevitability begins to set in. Even a few black-and-gold signs along the way would have reminded people that it wasn't a thought crime to oppose a tax hike.

Secondly, while political and academic debates about why an idea is bad are terrific for party and ideological health, they're death-on-a-stick for a political campaign, especially one about a ballot measure. A simple irrefutable message, endlessly repeated, is far more effective. That would have required an umbrella organization like the Pro-C forces had, one that could have coordinated immediate responses to Pro-C tactics, and would have reminded those non-profits (and their donors) that they're better off building grass-roots support for their projects than spending money on lobbyists.

And finally, an umbrella organization would have required political leadership to take the helm here. Look, Jon Caldera's a bright guy, but didn't it occur to anyone (other than maybe Caldera) that having the libertarian leader of a think tank be the main spokesman for a Republican cause wasn't the best job fit, as they say? Think tanks are for ideas; they provide intellectual capital, they shouldn't be spending it in advocacy. Can anyone imagine the head of the Heritage Foundation, or the Claremont Institute, or the Manhattan Institute, or the Hudson Institute, or the Hoover Institute, leading a political campaign? The point here isn't to "influence the debate," it's to win the vote. Too many people saw a chance to make headlines, and as a result, we lost the campaign.

So how do we keep a TABOR defeat from turning into the catastrophe we're all afraid of? Long-term planning. If we're afraid of long-term programs building in a structural need for higher taxes, we need to point it out loud and long when it happens. This requires a combination of a legislative, executive, and political program, and it requires years of coordinated effort. It requires a legislative leadership willing to push for changes in how accounting it done, and it requires a governor willing to keep his promises on how the money is spent. And it requires groups like Claremont, the Independence Institute, and the Club for Growth to agree on how to measure this spending.

First, money is fungible. Part of C requires a report on how the extra money is being spent. In the real world, that's called a "budget," but in the new political culture of the state capitol, it will be an excuse to take all sorts of new programs, put them under the budget, and take all sorts of old education-roads-research spending and count it under "new money."

The Republican legislative leadership needs to begin drafting legislation, now, today, to make sure that doesn't happen. If they can't they need to issue their own annual reports conforming to those standards. And the governor need to show a little spine and veto spending bills that don't meet the standard, either. So he loses the override? Too bad. If Owens wants to keep next year's Republican nominee from running against his legacy, he needs to show that the party still stands for fiscal restraint.

Secondly, long-term Fiscal Notes. Right now, any piece of legislation requires a 2-year Fiscal Note, an estimate of its spending and revenue effect on the state. Stretch that to 5 years, to put it into the context of a re-TABORed budget. Then the storyline always becomes the effect on the budget after the new rate comes into effect. You think this isn't powerful? Wait until every new budget item is accompanied by a paragraph about how much more money they'll need to keep it going.

When the Democrats complain that 5 years is too long to estimate budgetary effects, remind the public that 1) they were the ones who sold a 5-year plan in the first place, and 2) businesses do it all the time, when valuing companies or evaluating new projects.

Third, compile 5-year budget estimates. This shows the overall iceberg before we hit it, and is the mirror of the Govnernor's Favorite Chart, showing exactly those projects in order to sell Ref C.

Finally, Porkbusters, Colorado-style. If Porkbusters can scrutinize the federal budget for bridges to nowhere, surely we can do the same here.

Fine, we lost the vote, now we have to deal with the consequences. The question is, are we willing to build for the long-term, in order to avoid the fiscal mess Ref C makes possible?


So, do you live on the corner of Monaco and Effing Parkway? That's a nice neighborhood.

You make some good points about why we failed to defeat C and D. I think the failure of the different committees to work together was a major problem. (I was treasurer for one of the committees.)

However, the best answer to the scare tactics of the pro-C forces is information and education. That will require long-term planning and effort.

great post, and I too believe it to be a massive leadership failure, especially the governor, who presented NO options.
Anti-C messages contained no positive suggestions about how we might overcome the current shortfall other than "suck it up"
And Politigalco; D did not pass, at least we defeated that!

Since I began observing Colorado politics in 1997 the state GOP has never really been unified. We have a post over at Mile High Delphi where we echo your thoughts.

Caldara is the de facto leader of one wing, the new fight will be over the leader of the other wing.

Mr. Bob, you're right about D--thank goodness. This campaign could have prompted a great discussion about the role of government, but that never happened.

C&D would have been DOA had Owens been a Republican. Caldera did the job that Owens was supposed to do. I'd cross the street before I'd walk by Owens on the sidewalk.

Also, I saw one sign and no bumper stickers.

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