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Reversal of fortune 

Once a taxpayer's savior, Douglas Bruce might have been poison to the 2C opposition campaign

click to enlarge Is the political influence of Douglas Bruce waning? - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Is the political influence of Douglas Bruce waning?

There was a time when the name Douglas Bruce was mentioned in laudatory terms by staunch conservatives and even some moderates who embraced his Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the constitutional amendment approved by voters statewide in 1992 that requires voter approval of tax hikes and debt, while also limiting government revenue growth.

But Bruce's opposition to Colorado Springs' pothole tax measure 2C, which triumphed by a 65-35 margin last week, is being cited as part of the reason it passed.

"Even if the message is good, it's hard for people to think it's a credible message if the messenger is tainted," says Laura Carno, a conservative who ran an opposition campaign not affiliated with Bruce, in an interview.

In other words, if Bruce is against it, let's all vote for it.

It didn't help that in the run-up to the election Bruce made headlines repeatedly for a land transaction with City Councilor Helen Collins, which triggered an ethics complaint against her, and allegations that he violated probation for a 2011 tax-evasion conviction. Almost every article the Gazette wrote about the deal and its fallout identified Bruce as a "convicted felon," for example, a change from its coverage in the 1990s and 2000s that labeled him "a political activist."

Carno notes the "vote no" message against the .62 of 1 percent sales tax hike was cast almost exclusively in terms of arguments made by Bruce and Collins, which included allegations that the money would go toward developing a downtown stadium and surrounding infrastructure rather than resurfacing decrepit roads.

Carno's campaign contended the city's budget is ample to fund road repairs, rendering the tax hike, which will raise $250 million in five years, unnecessary.

Another reason Carno factors in the measure's demise: Money. Her IACE (I am Created Equal) Action committee raised about $2,000, compared to the nearly $400,000 raised as of Oct. 30 by Springs Citizens Building the Future, a committee representing well-connected individuals and organizations, with donations pouring in from contractors, construction industry associations and developers.

"Who's getting road contracts?" Carno asks. "It better not be just the people who donated."

But the pivotal reason for 2C's passage, says Carno and other political observers, was likely the reputation of and esteem for Mayor John Suthers, who was elected in May with 68 percent of the vote.

"We now have an executive that the voters elected to solve problems, and they trust that the mayor has the ability to get the work done," says Kevin Walker, who ran the "vote yes" campaign for the fee-based Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority measure a year ago, which failed. Former Mayor Steve Bach openly opposed that measure.

In addition, Bach's argumentative style and Council's infighting wore on citizens' nerves, seeming to leave the city with bickering but no solutions.

William Mutch, a political consultant who ran the "vote yes" campaign for 2C, says Suthers' leadership was only compounded in voters' eyes by support from eight members of City Council, including solid conservatives like Keith King and Don Knight. The ballot measure represented cooperation between Suthers and Council, or as Suthers' put it, "a clear plan to solve a clear problem." Also, following the formula for previous successful tax measures, Suthers proposed that collection of the tax, which begins January 1, be limited to just five years, though he has said a request for a five-year extension is likely.

But Carno, while acknowledging Suthers' influence, says the city is still grounded in conservatism.

"I think it's a one-time deal with a very popular mayor and his network believing him, and I appreciate that," she says. "But it is a conservative town, where people want a good value for their tax dollar. If they don't see that happening, I don't see this continuing," she adds, referring to plans to seek a five-year extension of the tax in 2020.

Of course, in the case of 2C, there's also this factor: A pavement quality analysis deems 60 percent of the city's roads to be in poor condition — and they're only getting worse.

But typical of his reaction to prior defeats, Bruce declines to comment on 2C's passage.

If the past is an indicator, though, we haven't heard the last from the father of tax limitation. Even after being censured while serving as a state representative in 2008 for kicking a photographer during a prayer in the state legislature, Bruce claimed a city election victory the following year. In 2009 Bruce brought Issue 300, which bars transfers of money between the city and its enterprises, to the city ballot, and it won by a wide margin. (The measure targeted the unpopular Stormwater Enterprise established in 2005, for which fees were imposed in 2007. City Council responded to the vote by abolishing the enterprise in December 2009.)

And as local attorney Gary Shoup, who served as an El Paso County commissioner from 1987 to 1995, observes in regard to 2C, "It strikes me that 35 percent [in opposition] is pretty large and notable, given what the issue was."

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