DENVER (AP) – Colorado voters agreed Tuesday to give up $3.7 billion in taxpayer refunds over the next five years to allow the state to bounce back from a recession, ignoring the arguments of fiscal conservatives who say the 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 next week and several other states considering spending 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.

Referendum C lets 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 cap on government spending.

With 76 percent of the expected vote counted statewide, 439,778 voters, or 53 percent, had approved the plan.

, compared with 391,842, or 47 percent, who voted against it.

Voters were closely divided on a second measure that would let the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects: 426,133 for; 421,986 against.

Voting problems cropped around the state Tuesday as at least one voting machine broke down and several polling places ran out of ballots.

In the traditional conservative stronghold of El Paso County, anchored by Colorado Springs, voters waited after the polls should have closed for more ballots to arrive. The higher-than-expected turnout created a shortage, and some people left in frustration, clerk Bob Balink said.

One opposition group has already threatened legal action, claiming the polls shouldn’t have been left open and were only done so to let more supporters vote.

The secretary of state had predicting a near-record turnout for an off-year election, and turnout appeared heavy.

In Greeley, voters at one library waited in line for 40 minutes to cast their ballots.

“My job depends on it. Without it, we’re toast,” said Laura Manuel, who works at Metropolitan State College in Denver and supported suspending the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. “People want a free lunch – they want roads and sidewalks but don’t want to pay for it.”

The 1992 constitutional amendment, dubbed TABOR, has been celebrated by fiscal conservatives across the country. Until this year, those supporters included Gov. Bill Owens, but the lame-duck Republican stunned his party by joining Democrats on the ballot measure. Owens said he backed it because Colorado faces a fiscal crisis.

Randy Wood, a 45-year-old PTA member with two daughters in Denver’s public schools, said he voted in favor because he worries about more cuts in education after seeing music and the arts suffer.

Patricia Kropf, a retired dental office manager who lives in Denver, said she voted against the measure.

“We don’t trust the government, and we don’t know what they would do with the money,” the 62-year-old Republican said.

The vote capped a bitter, $8 million campaign.

Supporters argued that without the change, Colorado would be forced to close state parks and cut funding for health care and universities and community colleges.

Opponents branded the measures a tax grab by politicians too gutless to make tough decisions on spending.

“We have some people running around saying the sky is falling. Others say this is the opportunity we have been waiting for, that we can do government with less,” said Jon Caldara, leader of the opposition group Vote No; It’s Your Dough. Caldara said Tuesday’s ballot shortages were inexcusable and threatened legal action.

Also Tuesday:

-A plan to directly link the salaries of Denver public school teachers to student achievement appeared headed toward approval. With 389 of 420 precincts reporting, 58 percent supported the Professional Compensation system proposal while 42 percent opposed it.

-Another Denver plan, to make it legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, appeared headed to a narrow victory. With 389 of 420 precincts reporting, 53 percent voted in favor while 47 percent voted against it. The city attorney’s office said that if the measure passed, police would simply file marijuana possession charges under state law.


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