How Koch broth­ers got in­volved in Colorado Springs pot­holes

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY COREY HUTCHINS na­tional@wash­post.com Hutchins is a free­lance writer. Matea Gold con­trib­uted to this re­port.

COLORADO SPRINGS — This much ev­ery­one can agree on: The streets of this large city on the Rocky Moun­tain Front Range are a wreck. Sixty per­cent are in dis­re­pair, cracked and rut­ted; driv­ing on them is of­ten a game of ve­hic­u­lar Minesweeper. One lo­cal TV news chan­nel runs a seg­ment called “Pot­hole Pa­trol.”

But when this city’s newly elected con­ser­va­tive mayor urged vot­ers to ap­prove an in­crease in the sales tax to pay to im­prove the roads, he drew fire from an un­ex­pected source: a branch of Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity, a pow­er­ful con­ser­va­tive ad­vo­cacy group backed by the bil­lion­aire in­dus­tri­al­ists Charles and David Koch.

The group’s in­volve­ment in a mu­nic­i­pal in­fra­struc­ture is­sue spot­lights how AFP is seiz­ing on lo­cal is­sues across the coun­try as it works to build a per­ma­nent grass-roots army.

The group helped de­rail a re­cent roads bill in South Carolina. It faced off with Wi­chita’s city coun­cil over an apart­ment de­vel­op­ment deal and with Mil­wau­kee’s over a street­car pro­ject. In Co­ralville, Iowa, the group pushed back on a tax in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing plan. Near Den­ver, it was in the mid­dle of the fierce fight for con­trol of the Jef­fer­son County school board.

And in Colorado Springs, it has taken on the road tax. The or­ga­ni­za­tion started an online pe­ti­tion and took out Face­book ads to op­pose the tax. The group pro­duced a 23-page re­port on the is­sue and even hired an out-of­s­tate ac­coun­tant to ex­am­ine the city’s bud­get. In a City Hall pre­sen­ta­tion, the ac­coun­tant told lo­cal lead­ers they should be able to find money to fix the roads with­out rais­ing taxes.

Now ner­vous civic lead­ers won­der whether AFP will wade into the bal­lot ini­tia­tive over the tax this fall.

Mayor John Suthers, a Repub­li­can and for­mer Colorado at­tor­ney gen­eral, has been push­ing hard for the 0.62 per­cent sales tax in­crease. “The money,” he told a group of busi­ness lead­ers at a town hall meet­ing last month, “would go to a sep­a­rate fund to be used for roads only.”

Suthers has called AFP’s pro­posal “an in­cred­i­bly un­in­formed anal­y­sis,” but he was re­luc­tant to talk about the group in an in­ter­view with The Washington Post.

“To the ex­tent they’re wrong, I’m go­ing to say, ‘You’re wrong,’ ” Suthers said. “But I’mnot go­ing to get in a back-and-forth.”

Ex­pand­ing at lo­cal level

Suthers, who took of­fice this sum­mer, said the tax in­crease would gen­er­ate a pro­jected $250 mil­lion in new rev­enue di­rected to re­pair the roads in Colorado’s sec­ond-largest city — a Repub­li­can strong­hold that is home to five mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions and a net­work of churches that bloomed around the re­gion when Fo­cus on the Fam­ily moved here in the early 1990s.

Colorado Springs is also home to a chap­ter of AFP, the prime po­lit­i­cal arm of a non­profit net­work backed by the Kochs and other con­ser­va­tive donors who have pledged to spend $889 mil­lion in the run-up to the 2016 elec­tions.

Their ul­ti­mate im­pact on next year’s races is un­known. Their abil­ity to in­flu­ence pol­icy at the lo­cal level is al­ready ap­par­ent.

By mid-sum­mer, a steadily ex­pand­ing AFP, which has been ac­tive in Colorado for about six years, had of­fices in roughly three dozen states and count­ing, with a fo­cus on per­ma­nently em­bed­ding hun­dreds of staffers at the state and lo­cal level. They have launched a swarm of cam­paigns to af­fect the out­come of lo­cal fights. Some of those ef­forts have in­volved bat­tling Repub­li­cans. In Colorado Springs, it has meant tak­ing on busi­ness lead­ers, and the con­ser­va­tive mayor.

An­gela Dougan, a for­mer City Coun­cil mem­ber, started the AFP chap­ter in Colorado Springs. She said AFP hasn’t de­cided whether to spend money in the of­fi­cial cam­paign over the tax ques­tion.

“We will be ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple,” she said of her group’s in­volve­ment on the tax plan.

How­ever in­volved it is in the ul­ti­mate bal­lot bat­tle, AFP’s pro­file on the is­sue al­ready rep­re­sents a new kind of pol­i­tics for this city. “I’ve never seen this kind of com­ing-in-from-the-out­side as is hap­pen­ing now,” said Mary Lou Make­peace, who was mayor from 1997 to 2003 and lost a come­back bid to Suthers this spring.

Kochs ‘may write a check’

Of course, deep-seated tax aver­sion isn’t an im­port in Colorado. Thanks to a 1992 con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment called the Tax­payer Bill of Rights, or TA­BOR, any tax in­crease at the state level re­quires vot­ers’ ap­proval. This fis­cal strait­jacket also ap­plies to Colorado Springs, where the man who au­thored TA­BOR, a lo­cal land­lord and anti-tax folk hero named Dou­glas Bruce, per­suaded the city to put TA­BOR in its char­ter in 1991. Suc­cess­ful in Colorado Springs— Bruce calls his city “the epi­cen­ter of the tax re­volt”— he took the ef­fort statewide the next year.

In 2012, Bruce went to jail on charges that in­cluded tax eva­sion. He’s cur­rently fac­ing a hear­ing to de­ter­mine whether he vi­o­lated his pa­role, and he ac­cuses the state’s po­lit­i­cal elite of try­ing to send him back to jail to snuff out another anti-tax cru­sade. Bruce has dubbed the mayor’s pro­posal in Colorado Springs a “pot­hole tax.” He has shown up at public meet­ings and bet mem­bers of the City Coun­cil $100 apiece that their tax hike will fail. (The coun­cil voted 8 to 1 to put the tax ques­tion to vot­ers; only one of them took Bruce’s bet.)

Bruce’s 1991 ef­fort in Colorado Springs was a home­grown op­er­a­tion. This time, he’s angling for heavy ar­tillery.

“Be­cause of what I did with the city and the state — TA­BOR— it’s sort of the home of tax lim­i­ta­tion,” he said. “The Koch broth­ers, they may write a check.”

Jeff Crank, a for­mer AFP state di­rec­tor who lives in Colorado Springs, said he’s al­ready been able to raise hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to fight the tax, should he nee dit. He said he hopes the mayor and City Coun­cil will lis­ten more closely to AFP’s sug­ges­tions about find­ing money for the roads with­out rais­ing taxes.

“If they just ig­nore it and de­cide they aren’t go­ing to take any of AFP’s ad­vice, I think we will prob­a­bly do much, much more,” Crank said.

Be­hind the scenes, more is al­ready hap­pen­ing. Some city res­i­dents have been an­swer­ing the phone to hear an elec­tronic mes­sage pos­ing as a poll that cri­tiques the tax. Dougan said AFP is not be­hind the calls.

Last month, as Suthers headed for his car af­ter a meet­ing, he did not want to talk about what it’s like to do bat­tle with AFP as a newly elected mayor. There was no time for con­ver­sa­tion with his first big ini­tia­tive on the line.

“I’m try­ing to win this thing,” he said.

“I’ve never seen this kind of com­ing-in-fromthe-out­side as is hap­pen­ing now.”

Mary Lou Make­peace, for­mer Colorado Springs mayor

AN­DREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

John Suthers, mayor of Colorado Springs, backs a tax in­crease to fix the city’s roads.

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