DENVER – Colorado residents have voted to suspend their Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the strictest government spending limit in the nation, and give up more than $3 billion in tax refunds to help the state bounce back from a recession.
Fiscal conservatives were dismayed at the outcome Tuesday night and worried about its impact on other states considering similar spending limits.
But supporters said Colorado couldn't afford to vote no, not with higher education, health care and transportation already suffering from millions of dollars in budget cuts.
"It means we can join 49 other states recovering from the recession, we can make up some of the cuts," said Republican Gov. Bill Owens (search), who stunned his own party by joining Democrats in crafting the ballot measure.
Douglas Bruce, an anti-tax crusader who wrote the 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, said Colorado voters caved in to government pressure.
Tuesday's vote makes it harder now for other states to cap spending, he said. California, Kansas, Ohio, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and Arizona all are considering new limits.
"The establishment is going to say we had 13 years of experience with spending limits and we changed our minds. I'm sorry for their sake and I'm sorry for our sake," Bruce said.
With 99 percent of the expected vote counted statewide, 575,352 voters, or 52 percent, had approved the plan, compared with 531,791, or 48 percent, who voted against it.
Next Tuesday, a proposal to limit state spending goes to the voters in California, and polls already are giving it little chance of passing.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) has been urging voters to cap California's spending and give him the power to cut funding without legislative approval by approving the measure, but opponents have billed it as devastating to public school funding.
The approval of the Colorado referendum allows the state to keep an estimated $3.7 billion over five years that otherwise would have been refunded to taxpayers.
A second statewide ballot measure meant to let the state borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects narrowly lost.
The votes capped a bitter, $8 million campaign in which opponents declared the two measures tax grabs by politicians afraid to make tough decisions. Many singled out Owens, once considered potential presidential material by conservatives, as a traitor to his party.
One opposition group leader was already threatening legal action Tuesday night over voting problems.
In the traditional conservative stronghold of El Paso County, anchored by Colorado Springs, some voters waited in line well after the polls should have closed because a higher-than-expected turnout had created a ballot shortage. Some people left in frustration, clerk Bob Balink said.
Jon Caldara, leader of the opposition group Vote No; It's Your Dough, called the ballot shortages inexcusable.
While some voters, such as real estate broker Mike Dorsey of Colorado Springs, considered the measure a "permanent tax increase," college students and professors feared that without it higher education would face crippling cuts and tuition spikes.
"It's not a Republican or Democrat issue," said James Palmer, a professor of film studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "If you look at where Colorado is rated among the 50 states in terms of taxes and support for higher education, it's shocking to see how far down this state is. If it doesn't pass, there are going to be more cuts across the board."
Denver voters on Tuesday also approved an annual $25 million property tax increase to fund a program that will link raises and incentives for Denver public school teachers to student achievement. Experts said no other large district in the nation has tried such a dramatic overhaul.
They also approved a measure to make it legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in Denver, though the city attorney's office said police would simply file marijuana possession charges under state law.