1 for the Money

Interpreting Amendment 1 can be quite a balancing act. On Monday, Fitzhugh Havens took the fall.

Drive to Pagosa Springs, then south through the sloping ranchlands of south-central Colorado and across the Rio Blanco on Route 84, one of the few paved roads in Archuleta County. About five miles shy of the New Mexico border, you'll see the Chromo Mercantile, where Fitzhugh Havens has been the proprietor for the past half-century. "The speed limit is only fifty miles per hour," he growls. "So you can't miss it."

Besides, he points out, "there's nothing else here. Chromo is just a place. There's nothing but our little store and the post office, which is in the store. It's beginning to change. But not much."

For the past six months, the Chromo country store has been the unlikely headquarters of a tax battle with towering stakes, and lawyers throughout Colorado now know of Fitzhugh Havens. That's because the eighty-year-old former rancher has been trying very hard to solve a statewide brainteaser.

Four years ago Colorado voters passed a sweeping and vastly complicated law called the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights --the Tabor Amendment, also known as Amendment 1. Among other things, the constitutional amendment directs local governments to refund any extra money they collect from taxes over very specific limitations.

Since 1992, the year Amendment 1 passed, Colorado's economy has enjoyed an enduring boom. For Colorado's hundreds of municipalities, special districts and counties--including Archuleta County, where Chromo lies--that has translated into a windfall of millions of dollars in unanticipated money, largely from surging sales-tax collections.

So where, Fitzhugh Havens wanted to know, was his refund?
Two years ago Archuleta County did what many other local governments have done since Amendment 1 passed: Finding themselves with unexpected cash, officials asked local voters if, instead of refunding it, they could keep it, along with any extra funds they collect over the next few years. Archuleta County's voters agreed. Yet according to Havens's reading of the Tabor Amendment, in exchange for their vote, the county should have promised some sort of refund--either cash or a tax reduction--somewhere down the line.

Not everyone agrees with the Chromo interpretation of the new law--including its author. "Well," says Douglas Bruce, trying to follow the trail of Havens's reasoning through the document he wrote, "not exactly."

Yet Amendment 1 is no longer Bruce's alone to interpret. And living in Chromo gets a man accustomed to going his own way. So, drawing money from his retirement nest egg, Havens filed a lawsuit against Archuleta County.

After the legalese is boiled off, Havens's suit was simple: He wanted the reimbursement that he was certain he was owed under the law. To the consternation of many local government administrators and elected officials, this past spring Havens's lawsuit made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court.

The Colorado Municipal League, for one, was deeply concerned about Havens's personal legal project. The group noted that since the passage of Amendment 1, numerous municipalities and other governments have asked for, and received, voters' permission to keep unexpected revenue--yet they have not felt compelled to offer refunds. "If [Havens] were to prevail," the league's lawyer, David Broadwell, pointed out in a legal brief filed in support of Archuleta County, "then the validity of at least 173 popularly approved ballot issues may be called into question."

To the relief of Broadwell, the municipal league and dozens of local governments, on Monday the Supreme Court ruled against Havens. Yet his lawsuit is a reminder that the debate over the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights--what it means and who it really benefits--is just revving up.

Four years after it passed, the Tabor Amendment is causing as much confusion as ever. Although politicians warned that Amendment 1 would eviscerate Colorado's local governments, most people seem to have voted for what Bruce said was the intent of the measure--to cut down on government's growth by limiting the amount of money taxpayers put into its hands. The amendment imposed tight restrictions, based on the rate of inflation and population growth, on how much governments could increase their tax collections each year.

Yet as it has been reread, deconstructed and reinterpreted in the time since its passage, the law turns out to have been far more complex than many people initially understood it to be, and with far broader implications. Broadwell, whose sole job at the municipal league has become tracking Amendment 1 fallout, has counted sixteen separate issues that voters approved when they voted for Tabor, ranging from revenue limitations and intricate borrowing procedures to how and when elections are held. The result? "You ask ten people what this means," he says, "and you'll get ten separate answers."

A major reason for the perplexity surrounding the law is that, despite all the attention paid to Amendment 1, by most accounts Tabor is not a very clear document. "I've read it many, many times," says Archuleta County manager Dennis Hunt. "And I still can't understand it. I think it's very poorly written."

Adds Broadwell, "What it is and what it ain't is very unclear. And the stakes are very high."

They are so high that seeking ways to escape the shadow of Amendment 1 has become a complex legal pastime for local governments. Take, for example, the case of the E-470 Public Highway Authority, charged with building the road ringing the south metro area.

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