(AP) DENVER Colorado voters agreed Tuesday to surrender $3.7 billion in taxpayer refunds over the next five years to allow the state to bounce back from a recession, ignoring entreaties from fiscal conservatives who said government doesn't need more money to spend.
The vote was closely watched around the nation, with Californians scheduled to decide a government tax-and-spend question on next week's ballot and several other states considering their own caps.
Supporters said Colorado simply could not afford to vote no, not with higher education, health care and transportation already suffering from millions of dollars in budget cuts.
The vote was a sweet victory for lame duck Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who stunnedhis own party by crafting the ballot measure with Democrats.
"It tells other states if you do it the right way, it works," Owens said. "It means we can join 49 other states recovering from the recession, we can make up some of the cuts in education, roads and health care."
Referendum C will let the state keep an estimated $3.7 billion over five years that would otherwise be refunded under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment that is considered the nation's strictest limit on government spending.
With 89 percent of the expected vote counted statewide, 522,521 voters, or 52 percent, had approved the plan, compared with 479,046, or 48 percent, who voted against it.
A second ballot measure, Referendum D, apparently failed in the late vote tallying. It would have allowed the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects. Late Tuesday, 513,984 were shown as voting against the plan and 505,083 were shown as voting for it.
That brought some solace to opponents.
"We might have lost but we lost in a split decision. I'll take that half-loaf than no loaf at all," said Jon Caldara, leader of the opposition group "Vote No; It's Your Dough."
In Denver, voters approved a $25 million annual property tax hike to pay for a public school teacher salary overhaul that will directly link incentives to student achievement. They also made it legal for adults over 21 to carry up to an ounce of marijuana in the city limits, though authorities said state possession charges will be filed instead.
Voting problems cropped up late in the day: Higher-than-expected turnout led to ballot shortages in heavily populated El Paso County, a conservative Republican stronghold anchored by Colorado Springs.
Results were delayed for hours as sheriff's deputies toted ballots to polling stations where lines of people were still waiting to vote, county clerk and recorder Bob Balink said. A voting machine broke down in tiny Mineral County, putting off the tally of 400 votes until Wednesday.
With opponents and supporters warning the state's future was at stake, the secretary of state predicted voter turnout of 45 percent -- near the odd-year election record of 47.2 percent in 2003.
"My job depends on it. Without it, we're toast," said Laura Manuel of Greeley, an employee at Metropolitan State College in Denver who voted yes. "I tend to be liberal with tax money anyway. People want a free lunch -- they want roads and sidewalks but don't want to pay for it."
Supporters had warned Colorado will be forced to lay off government employees, cut health care funding, and slash state money for universities and community colleges should the measures fail.
Opponents labeled the plan a tax grab by politicians too gutless to make tough decisions, with many singling out Owens as a traitor to his party.
Douglas Bruce, an antitax crusader who wrote the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, said voters caved in to government pressure and the decision here will make it harder for other states to approve similar measures.
"The establishment is going to say we had 13 years of experience with spending limits and we changed our minds. I'm sorry for their sake and I'm sorry for our sake," Bruce said.
Mike Dorsey, a 51-year-old real estate broker in Colorado Springs, voted no to avoid what he called a "permanent tax increase."
"Show me the roads, show me the schools, show me exactly where the money is going," he said, a theme echoed by Richard Buehrig, a 66-year-old Air Force veteran in Colorado Springs.
"Money for schools, money for roads, money for health care. But it's never defined -- who actually gets the money and who doesn't -- that's the rub I have," he said. "They can't split the pie up so many times."
Farther north, Dee Johnson of Loveland said she needed to hang on to any money she might get after adopting her two grandchildren.
"Because we are seniors, we like the fact we get tax rebates, especially since we have two small children," she said. "I think Colorado has to tighten its financial budget. When you don't have the money, you don't spend it."
But Dena Hauser, a 75-year-old retired day care worker in Boulder, said she voted yes because she believes C and D will help people who live on a fixed income get the prescription drugs and medical care they need.
"Too often, it's having enough money for prescriptions or food, it shouldn't be that way," she said. Should the measures fail, she added: "It will mean more people on welfare, more people in homeless shelters and more people in the poor house."
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