Jon Caldara, Politics, Taxes, Transit, Transportation

Denver politics, Chicago style: The Chamber’s shakedown for Prop 110

To absolutely no one’s surprise Proposition 110, the sales tax increase for mystery transportation projects, went down in flames Tuesday.

Considering that voters put progressives in every crevasse of state government, you’d think a tax hike for centrally-planned transit, bike paths and roads would have been appealing. But once we at the Independence Institute put the competing initiative, Prop 109, Fix Our Damn Roads (which didn’t raise taxes), on the ballot, Prop 110 was finished. And everyone knew it. Really. Everyone.

And still they put over $7 million into pimping the tax increase. Why?

Voters didn’t want to raise taxes, at least not on a state-wide basis. And by the equal shellacking our Prop 109 got, they don’t want to go into debt for roads either. Of course, I would have preferred 109 won, but that’s not the main reason we put it on the ballot.

I’ve been a political activist for nearly 30 years in Colorado, and I’ve won and lost political battles and learned something new every time. What has struck me this year is the incredible power of cronyism and go-along-ism inside the Denver power structure. I mean, I’ve always known it was bad, but I’ve never seen anything like this year.

No one inside this club of special interests and inside money wanted to stand up and say, “the emperor has no clothes, your tax increase has NO chance, I’m not wasting my money on it.”

The emperor in this case is the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the myriad of organizations, consultants and politicians that orbit it.

There are very few secrets in politics. Like in most of life, pretty much everybody knows just about everything. And when it comes to polling everyone is looking over everyone else’s shoulder to see what their poll says.

So, what surprised me about Prop 110 is that almost all of the supporters seemed to know it had no chance of winning. Not a single polling firm showed this tax increase passing, not even the polling firm the Denver Chamber itself used. But “supporters” still funneled millions to the effort, because, as I’ve learned, that’s just the cost of doing business in Denver.

How do I know so many financial backers of the Chamber’s tax increase knew it didn’t have a chance? Well, because a lot of them told me personally. Politically speaking, Denver is still a small town.

I am still trying to wrap my mind around a power structure that is so intimidating that associations, contractors, bond dealers, political consultants and reporters all recognize political reality — that a state-wide tax increase for unspecified road and transit projects had no chance of passage while a competing measure was on the ballot — yet refused to stand up and just say so because they feared the Chamber and its strong ties with the governor’s office and city governments around the metro area.

But then again when your bread and butter comes from governmental spending, why risk upsetting the system? When the Chamber demands you put money into their cause, you do, or risk hurting your business.

It’s called a shakedown.

Denver has never been more like Chicago. You pay your tribute or risk falling out of favor. The difference may be that in Chicago the shakedowns happen behind closed doors. In Denver it happens out in the open. It’s just business as usual.

Twenty years ago Gov. Bill Owens successfully spearheaded an effort similar to our Fix Our Damn Roads which bonded existing revenue to fund specified road projects around the state. In fact, adjusted for inflation, it was the same amount of debt. The major difference is that today we have so much extra revenue flooding into state coffers that the debt could be paid back without any threats to the budget.

So just how nutty is it that in 1999 the Denver Chamber of Commerce and its official newsletter, The Denver Post, were the leading champions for Owens’ version of Fix Our Damn Roads? This year they said the same thing, Prop 109, was “too risky” and the only way to go was a tax increase that they knew couldn’t pass.

But a multi-million-dollar campaign itself is its own public works program. Chicago style.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on November 8, 2018.


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