Tax campaign keeps low profile
Proponents of school tax increase beat the bushes, not the airwaves
DENVER – The biggest campaign you’ve never heard of is about to make itself known.
The Yes on 66 campaign will ask voters in November to raise their own income taxes in order to pay for reforms and more resources for public schools.
Colorado voters have never approved anything close to the $1 billion-a-year tax increase since the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights turned over the right to approve tax increases to citizens in 1992.
Conventional wisdom held that only an expensive multimedia campaign could move voters away from their default “no new taxes” attitude.
But with two weeks before ballots are mailed out to voters, the Yes on 66 campaign debuted its first TV commercials only on Tuesday. Instead, the campaign appears to be quietly building the kind of door-to-door effort that helped propel President Barack Obama’s re-election.
“We are everywhere. We are out there,” said Gail Klapper, director of a business group called the Colorado Forum and an early backer of Amendment 66. “It’s going to be a very robust campaign.”
As of Monday, Sept. 30, the campaign had raised $5 million, including $1.8 million in the last two weeks. Its biggest expense by far has been $1.4 million in payments to Fieldworks, a Washington, D.C., firm that specializes in person-to-person campaigns.
The Yes on 66 campaign opened a Durango office and has more than 12 field offices – a spokesman would not give out the exact number – where neighborhood canvasses are staged. That’s unusual for a ballot campaign and comparable to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, which had 14 field offices in Colorado at this point last year.
“In addition to more than a dozen outreach offices in communities – including Durango – across Colorado, we have a robust network of volunteers who are drawn to our message of smaller classes and making sure that the new money will get into the classroom,” spokesman Curtis Hubbard said in an email.
The Yes on 66 campaign is intimately tied to Gov. John Hickenlooper. The firm that runs his campaign, OnSight Public Affairs, is helping plot the strategy. And his part-time deputy chief of staff, Jamie Van Leeuwen, is also a paid staffer on the school-tax campaign.
As of the beginning of September, the campaign had 20 paid staffers, according to campaign-finance reports.
The opposition campaign, Coloradans for Real Education Reform, has raised just $10,000, all from a single donation by the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank.
But a member of the opposition group thinks her side has the upper hand.
“Their biggest thing to overcome is the fact that we’re in the midst of a fragile recovery, and there’s just not the appetite among Coloradans for a billion-dollar tax increase, when there really is no assurance that it will make it down to the teachers and students,” said Kelly Maher.
Proponents say the Legislature has ensured that the extra money will be easy to track, and it will go primarily to classrooms.
Amendment 66 asks voters for a two-tier income tax hike. The current 4.63 percent rate would be raised to 5 percent on income up to $75,000, and each dollar earned above $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent.
The money would help pay for a set of school reforms and improvements the Legislature specified this spring. Items include full-day kindergarten, more preschool slots, extra payments for poor districts and more resources for at-risk kids.
“You’re going to get more teachers in the classroom, more one-on-one time between teachers and kids,” Klapper said.
Campaign supporters want voters to hear that message, but not to get overwhelmed by it, in the next month.
“I think people get sick and tired of these things,” Klapper said. “We think a couple of weeks of TV and radio and people coming to your door, in a very uncrowded ballot, is the right approach,” Klapper said.
The only other statewide ballot measure is a proposed tax on recreational marijuana.