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Support for Proposition HH began eroding the moment the Colorado property tax relief plan was introduced

That weak foundation was reflected in how voters rejected Proposition HH, a 10-year property tax relief and state spending overhaul, by an 18 percentage-point margin last week
A voter casts a ballot Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, at Christ Church United Methodist in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Support for Proposition HH started to unravel from the moment the bill placing the Colorado property tax relief plan on the November 2023 ballot was unveiled by Gov. Jared Polis’ at a news conference in his office at the state Capitol.

The governor was flanked at the May 1 event by high-profile supporters of the measure – liberals and conservatives. Polis pointed to their presence as evidence that the proposal was a well-crafted approach to a problem that had dogged state lawmakers since voters repealed the Gallagher Amendment in 2020, removing guardrails from the state’s property tax system.

“I certainly look forward to working with the business community and many other supporters to make sure that voters are aware of the importance of delivering on these property tax cuts,” Polis said, adding that he was “confident” the initiative would be approved by Coloradans.

But the reality was many of the people standing next to the governor at that news conference either had doubts about the complex policy, which also would have boosted funding for schools and cut into the amount of money for state taxpayer refunds, or didn’t fully understand how it worked, according to The Colorado Sun’s reporting.

That weak foundation was reflected in how voters rejected Proposition HH, a 10-year property tax relief and state spending overhaul, by an 18 percentage-point margin last week in one of Polis’ biggest policy failures since he became governor in 2019.

The legislature will gather at the Capitol starting Friday for a special session to try to quickly offer Coloradans property tax relief for the 2023 tax year before reconvening in January to take another stab at a long-term solution. The negotiations were colored by Proposition HH’s political collapse.

“We had a legislative product that was workable and reflected the necessary compromises at the Capitol,” said state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who helped write the bill that put Proposition HH before voters, “but it did not translate well to the ballot.”

“HH didn’t represent our preferred policy”

Colorado Concern, a nonprofit representing business CEOs in the state, was one the groups that worked closely with the governor’s office to draft Proposition HH. The organization’s CEO, Mike Kopp, was at the Polis’ news conference where the measure was rolled out. He was name-checked by the governor.

But even Colorado Concern’s support for the initiative was lukewarm.

“HH didn’t represent our preferred policy,” Kopp said this week, “but it was the only thing that was going to be offered to voters that would provide any kind of tax relief.”

The deep-pocketed nonprofit publicly endorsed the measure, but its support effectively stopped there. The group didn’t financially back the campaign to pass the initiative because of policy and political disagreement with how the proposition affected Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds.

“The history of TABOR elections in the state shows that voters generally prefer to keep TABOR intact,” said Kopp, a Republican who is a former state senator. “Whether somebody really loves the policy or not, it’s separate from the question of: ‘Is it something that the voters would adopt?’”

J.J. Ament, the president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, was also at Polis’ news conference in May. He too was cited by the governor as an example of the Republican support for the bill. But Ament said he wasn’t happy with the end result – and the chamber ended up taking a neutral stance on the initiative.

“We were at the press conference to support a legislative solution to a property tax emergency with the idea that we would also backfill local government,” he told The Sun over the summer. “What the legislature gave us, when we actually got the bill, did a whole bunch more than that.”

There were other signs that the show of support at the news conference was, at best, fragile.

A real estate agent spoke in support of the proposal, but the Colorado Association of Realtors opposed Proposition HH and spent gobs of money to fight its passage because of how it offered less of a break on people’s second homes.

Even the Bell Policy Center, a liberal fiscal policy nonprofit, wavered in its support of HH because of the messaging surrounding it. Scott Wasserman, who leads the organization and stood next to Polis at the May news conference, called it a “political Goldilocks,” with something for people from different political points of view to hate.

Democrats in the legislature, meanwhile, privately grumbled that the proposal, primarily drafted by the governor’s office, was dropped on the General Assembly too late in the session and without enough input. They were asked to trust that the governor’s office had gotten it right, but when some dug into the legislation, they didn’t love what they saw, particularly the lack of aid for renters, which led to on-the-fly changes that only compounded the political fissures around the measure.

Finally, Republicans and local governments complained that they were left out of the negotiations entirely, or not listened to when they were let in the room. The House GOP caucus walked out of the Capitol on the final day of the 2023 legislative session in protest.

Kevin Bommer, who leads the Colorado Municipal League, which represents the state’s cities, said he didn’t see the bill placing Proposition HH on the ballot until after the governor’s news conference unveiling the policy.

“We opposed it immediately, along with the other local government associations,” Bommer told The Sun this week.

How Proposition HH came to be

In a statement to The Sun on Tuesday, Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor, said “Colorado is in need of a long-term way to keep property taxes low, and Proposition HH was an idea in that vein.”

But even Polis, reflecting last week after Proposition HH’s failure, said the measure was flawed.

The governor, speaking at a news conference where he announced the special legislative session, said the initiative was too “long and confusing” and that it should have been broken up into different pieces. That was considered, but ultimately rejected, when the policy was drafted, The Sun has learned.

Polis said he thought the way the initiative would have reduced state taxpayer refunds by raising the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights cap on government growth and spending was the most unpopular part of the proposal.

“There were policies in HH I supported and policies I didn’t support,” he said. “Overall, I thought it was a good package.”

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the bill that placed HH on the ballot, said this week that the measure was borne out of fears that conservatives would put a further-reaching initiative with no reimbursement money for schools and local governments before voters.

“We were sort of between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “It was, like: ‘Do we put an alternative out there or do we just see what happens?’ You can probably debate what was the right call, but we decided: ‘Let’s put something out there for voters to have as an alternative.’”

By mid-summer, it was clear the conservative ballot measure was never going to materialize for the November 2023 election. Democrats, well aware of the shaky support for Proposition HH, decided to move forward with the initiative anyway.

The measure ended up faring worse than any question raising tax revenue on the statewide ballot since 2018.

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