Billions At Stake In Today's Election

With polls suggesting a vote too close to call, Colorado residents decided Tuesday whether to hand state government more than $3 billion in taxpayer money to stave off potentially drastic cuts to everything from higher education to health care for the poor.

"It looks like it will be a little busier than other odd-year elections," said Marguerite Duncan, election manager in El Paso County, the state's second-most populous. Secretary of State Gigi Dennis predicted voter turnout of 45 percent, near the odd-year election record of 47.2 percent in 2003.

Referendum C would let the state keep an estimated $3.7 billion over five years that would otherwise be refunded to taxpayers under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the constitutional amendment generally considered the nation's strictest cap on government spending.

Both sides of the debate over Referendum C mounted ad-rich get-out-the-vote efforts because polls have suggested the vote is a tossup.

"We are coming together at a critical time for Colorado's future. We went through a tough recession. Unfortunately, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights keeps us from recovering," Gov. Bill Owens told a crowd of several hundred students, professors and supporters at rally Monday in Denver.

A second measure, Referendum D, would allow the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects. Referendum D requires the approval of Referendum C.

The 1992 constitutional amendment, dubbed TABOR, has become a poster child for fiscal conservatives across the country that until this year included lame-duck Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who stunned some members of his party by crafting the ballot measure with Democrats.

A year after eligibility questions and ballot problems delayed some election results for days, few problems were reported in the early going Tuesday.

In Arapahoe County just south of Denver, one of 35 counties conducting the election by mail, some voters said they never got their ballots. Secretary of state spokeswoman Dana Williams said they were being allowed to vote in person.

Secretary of State Gigi Dennis predicted voter turnout of 45 percent, which would be near the odd-year election record of 47.2 percent in 2003, when voters overwhelmingly defeated a $2 billion proposal for unspecified water projects.

The TABOR measure has faced tough opposition from conservatives, who see it as an assault on tax limits at a time they are trying to persuade other states to follow Colorado's lead.

California will vote on whether to limit state spending on Nov. 8. Other states considering their version of the measure include Kansas, Ohio, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and Arizona.

Jon Caldara, spokesman for the "Vote No; It's Your Dough" campaign, said opponents spent the last full day of the campaign trying to convince voters it would be a mistake to give up tax surplus refunds.

"Once people get in the voting booth, they will think about politicians under the gold dome (of the state Capitol), and they will think about their families, and they will vote for their families," he said.

TABOR limits government tax and spending increases by linking them to inflation and population. Since a recession hit in 2001, Colorado lawmakers have carved $1.1 billion from the budget over three years, much of it from higher education and health care.

A companion measure on Tuesday's ballot, Referendum D, would allow the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects if C passes.

The vote ends a contentious, approximately $8 million campaign over the plan to suspend one of the key features of TABOR. Owens has warned that a failure to pass the plan will lead to the closure of 11 state parks, $12 million in cuts for health care for low-income and uninsured residents, a $7.7 million slash in financial aid of students and the elimination more than 600 government jobs.

Opponents say politicians are trying to grab taxpayer money to avoid making tough decisions, and they contend the state's budget still has room to make cuts or find savings.

The Marillac Clinic in Grand Junction, which provides medical, dental, and mental care to about 5,000 lower-income residents, gets about 35 percent of its funding from the state. The clinic could lose that money if Referendum C fails, said Steve Hurd, executive director.

The clinic's medical director, Doug Shank, said he voted yes on Referenda C and D on a mail-in ballot.

"My biggest concern is things like health care, obviously because that is where I work, and higher education," said Shank, whose two daughters attending Colorado School of Mines and Mesa State College.

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