Denver’s tax tolerance to be tested by November ballot that could include new taxes for scholarships, parks and more

A slew of approved and potential tax measures for Denver’s November ballot are poised to test the tax tolerance of one of the state’s friendliest counties for spending measures.

Campaigns are gearing up to pitch sales tax increases in support of several causes that, on their own, each sound noble. Already approved for the ballot are a City Council-referred sales tax increase to support more parks and an initiative by education, nonprofit and business leaders to fund college scholarships for the city’s youth. Initiative petitions for another tax that would support mental health and drug treatment programs now are under review, and on deck is the filing, in coming days, of petitions for a fourth tax that would raise money for healthy food programs serving at-risk children.

Add in an amendment that would raise the state income tax on higher-wage earners for education and a likely statewide tax measure for transportation, and the state’s largest county has the makings of a tax pileup on its Nov. 6 ballot.

Will voters flinch?

For years, political analyst Eric Sondermann has watched Denver voters repeatedly approve tax increases for big public projects and social initiatives, with few aberrations, and relax spending restrictions on the city budget. Given that history, it’s possible the city’s voters would sign off this time on the $116 million a year or more in new city spending that’s proposed.

But Sondermann said the backers of each local initiative ought to be worried, even if not all of the potential local measures make the ballot.

“The state questions — particularly the highway tax and the education tax — are going to be well-heeled campaigns,” he said, leaving the local campaigns at a disadvantage. “I think you will start to see Denver voters picking and choosing here. And that becomes dangerous if there’s not a broad consensus as to what the priority is.”

Mayor Michael Hancock, who signed off on the council’s dedicated parks tax ballot measure, also has worries.

“Just like at home, you may have 10 things you want to buy — but you realize that my resources just don’t go that far,” he said in an interview. “These are all priorities, and we’re going to have to, as voters, make some tough calls.”

Denver voters have been choosy before. In fact, in 2015, the predecessor of this year’s college scholarship tax went down by a margin of less than 4 percentage points.

It’s easy to imagine the public debate then — which focused in part on whether helping residents pay for college was within city government’s domain — playing out again for some of this fall’s potential measures.

Let’s say voters don’t pick and choose, instead approving them all. And let’s say the state’s voters approve the transportation measure, which proposes an increase of 0.62 percentage points to the 2.9 percent state sales tax. That one is backed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, other business groups and local government leaders across the state, though a competing group turned in petitions for a transportation measure that authorizes borrowing without new taxation.

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