It’s been 11 years since Boulder voters turned down a local tax

Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 (Updated Friday, Dec. 18)

The last time Boulder voters said no to a local taxing measure on their ballots, President Barack Obama was in the White House. For his first term.

It’s been 11 years since a funding effort was rejected at the polls. In the past dozen years, Boulderites have OK’d two dozen new, increased or extended taxes and expanded the city’s ability to issue debt on four separate occasions, according to an analysis of election records by Boulder Beat.

Of course, not all taxes are created equal — or borne by the entire base. Some have been on specific products, paid for only by consumers of said items: sugary drinks (2016) recreational marijuana (2013), vaping (2019). Others have been targeted to property owners, such as this year’s No Eviction Without Representation and a 2015 tax on short-term rentals.

Seven extensions were tacked onto citywide sales tax. Everyone who buys just about anything in the city of Boulder pays sales tax, but it is a regressive funding mechanism: Poor people pay a bigger share of their income on essential purchases, like groceries.

Boulder has one of the highest sales tax rates in the Front Range, at 8.845%. Sales tax is the source for half of city revenue (excluding utilities) and 41% of the general fund, out of which come the budgets for police, fire, the library and more.

Municipalities are somewhat hamstrung in what they can do to make tax policies more progressive, said Sven Steinmo, a professor of political science at CU Boulder who has done extensive research on tax policy.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights means that every new or increased tax has to pass muster of voters. That can be a limitation even in tax-loving Boulder if the city attempts to implement a more equitable tax that targets well-to-do residents.

“It would have to be voted on by people in Boulder who are wealthy,” Steinmo said. “Upper and middle class will vote against things that tax themselves. Politically, it’s a non-starter.”

Sales tax, though regressive, can be used in progressive ways, Steinmo said. He points to Sweden, which has one of the highest sales tax rates in the world but also one of the most equal societies, because the tax funds childcare, education, unemployment insurance, family leave — things that benefit lower-income demographics the most.

“I think the best thing (Boulder) can do is spend the money progressively rather than tax progressively.”

Four tax extensions over the last decade went to the all-purpose general fund. Two went to parks and recreation or open space and six to combat climate change, via municipalization or the Climate Action Plan tax.

Voters have occasionally given a boost to low-income residents as well. The sugary drinks tax goes to various attempts at health parity, which includes subsidized rec center passes and vouchers for the Boulder farmers market. This year’s measures, funding utility and rental assistance, will be a boost for families and older adults, according to experts.

ReadVoter-approved aid could lift struggling Boulderites

The distinction of last failed tax goes to a 2009 effort to fund affordable housing, levied on commercial development. Ballot item 2D failed 57.66% to 42.34% that year.

Boulder funds affordable housing through fees on residential and commercial development, among other sources. Since 2010, the city has invested $77 million in building or preserving 1,446 permanently affordable homes.

There was talk last year of reviving an affordable housing and transportation combo tax at the county level, but it was scuttled by the pandemic. Hesitant to ask taxpayers for more money amid an economic crisis, governments are themselves scrambling as sales tax revenue declines.

It’s unclear if new revenue sources will be discussed in 2021. City council will discuss priorities for the upcoming year at its annual planning retreat, Jan. 22-23.

Taxes on Boulder’s ballot, 2008-2020

2008
Issue No. 201 – City retention of property tax funds (Passed 64.99% to 35.01%)
Issue No. 202 – 0.38% sales tax extension for general fund (Passed 71.64% to 28.36%)

2009
2A – 0.15% sales and use tax extension for the general fund (Passed 68.04% to 31.96%)
2D – Increased tax on non-residential development for affordable housing (Failed 57.66% to 42.34%)

2010
2A – Increased tax on hotels/lodging (Passed 65.97% to 34.03%)
2B – Utility Occupation Tax to replace Xcel franchise fee (Passed 68.41% to 31.59%)

2011
2B – UOT extension for municipalization (Passed 50.4% to 49.6%)

2012
2A – Climate Action Plan tax extension (Passed 82.21% to 17.79%)
2B – 0.25 cent sales tax extension for parks and rec (Passed 85.06% to 14.94%)

2013
2A – Recreational marijuana tax (Passed 66.27% to 33.73%)
2B – 0.15 cent sales and use tax increase for transportation (Passed 66.25% to 33.75%)
Note: There were two other tax measures this year that dealt with allocation of the revenue. 2C repurposed part of a tax for open space acquisition, and 2D extended the 0.15 c transportation sales tax through 2030, repurposing it thereafter for the general fund

2014
2A – Community, Culture, Safety Tax (Passed 63.64% to 36.36%) $9.2M first year

2015
2N – Short-term tax (Passed 57.08% to 42.92%)
2O – UOT extension (Passed 71.4% to 28.6%)
2P – CAP extension (Passed 77.17% 22.83%)

2016
2H – Sugary drink tax (Passed 53.9% to 46.1%)

2017
2L – UOT extension (Passed 51.7% to 48.3%)
2M – 0.3 cent CCS tax extension (Passed 82.44% to 17.56%)

2018
2C – Fracking tax (Passed 75.71% to 24.29%)
2D – Retention of excess sugary drinks tax (Passed 64.44% to 35.56%)

2019
2G – Vaping product tax (Passed 79.67% to 20.33%)
2H – OSMP sales tax extension (Passed 85.82% to 14.18%)

2020
2B – No Eviction Without Representation (Passed 58.61% to 41.39%)
2D – UOT extension/repurposing (Passed 56.96% to 43.04%)

Debt issuance
2009: 2B – $33.45M bonding for open space purchases (Passed 57.68% to 42.32%)
2C – $11.32M in debt for fire, police pensions (Passed 67.37% to 32.63%)

2011: 2A – $49M Capital Improvement Program bonding (Passed 74.89% to 25.11%)

2019: 2I – Middle-income housing program/debt (Passed 69.22% to 30.78%)

Sources: Boulder County election results, sample ballots, TABOR notices

Author’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from Sven Steinmo.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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