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Road Warriors

Boon or boondoggle, Bill Owens's highway plan has to get past Douglas Bruce before it goes anywhere.

Groans and chuckles. But the grins vanish quickly as Bruce embarks on an hour-long scolding of the lawmakers for having the impudence to think that they might engage in any kind of meaningful tax reform.

"I'm here today without a suit and tie to balance out the fantasies of your previous witnesses, the insiders and lobbyists and special pleaders," he says. "I'm here to speak on behalf of the average taxpayer, who has no representative here. There's more to the public interest than the totality of special interests."

Bruce ridicules the notion of having "a study about whether to have a study," calling the entire process a waste of money, a copout, an "abdication of your moral responsibilities." "People are not going to believe that those who caused the problem are going to solve it," he says.

Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).
Brett Amole
Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).

His message is clear: If the committee's intent is to gut TABOR, forget it. If the intent is to shift the tax burden in favor of special interests at the expense of the average citizen, well, the politicians have already done too much of that. "If you come up with a proposal that is opposed by the state's number-one taxpayer advocate," he warns, "it will lose."

It's an imperious performance, and the committee members take it like so many whipped curs. Even his presumed allies get no quarter from Bruce. When arch-conservative Senator John Andrews makes a polite assertion about TABOR, Bruce snappishly corrects him. "I ought to know," he says. "I wrote it."

Just what Bruce has wrought in TABOR is still a matter of debate. Conservatives hail its strict limits on revenues and spending as a formidable check on government at all levels. (Although the state already had its own self-imposed spending cap, it had proved quite malleable in lean times.) Liberals, while reviling its inflexibility, grudgingly concede that the measure has put more power in the hands of average citizens by requiring voter approval for tax increases. The measure's long-term effects, though, remain largely unstudied and unknown.

At the time of its passage, Governor Roy Romer and a host of other Cassandras predicted that TABOR would lead to a kind of governmental paralysis, if not outright anarchy. But Bruce believes the measure helped spark the state's roaring economy of the past few years. Even with the limits firmly in place, state government is expected to operate with an average surplus of nearly a billion dollars a year over the next five years.

"Everything I said came true," Bruce says. "Everything they said turned out to be a lie. It's almost like they're rooting for a recession so they can say, 'I told you so.'"

But not everyone is sold on the benefits of TABOR. Tom Brown, a research associate at the University of Colorado at Denver who's been studying the effects of the amendment, says that TABOR has disproportionately squeezed revenues in rural areas of the state, which tend to be more dependent on property taxes than large cities.

"It's pretty clear that property taxes have taken the big hit," says Brown. As a result, he adds, many small communities are now shifting services to county agencies or competing among themselves for dwindling revenues; over time, it may have such unintended consequences as requiring more state support -- and central control -- over traditionally local functions such as public education.

"The amendment has changed the rules of the game," Brown says. "It's making significant changes in the structure of local governments and in the relationships between governments."

Other critics say the measure unduly complicates government's ability to make wise use of its resources. For example, the City of Lakewood is now seeking a voter-approved exemption from TABOR to devote its surplus to needed services; the alternative to de-Brucing would be to issue city taxpayers a refund of $1.93 each.

"Doug was very clever about the way he drafted it," says Mike Feeley. "He's hamstrung the ability of local government to provide services arising from growth. It makes for a nightmare. It's also very self-serving. It says there shall be no new or increased real-estate transfer taxes -- well, Doug transfers property."

Barry Poulson, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, says the real problem with TABOR is not the amendment but the way the state legislature has responded to it -- allowing appropriations to continue to grow, bingeing on capital construction projects out of the accumulated surplus, despite the fact that the surplus will dwindle in a few years.

"In the long run, I think it's going to have a positive impact on the Colorado economy," Poulson says. "It's creating a better economic environment, attracting jobs and people and producing a more efficient government. But they need to start bringing spending down now rather than a few years from now."

Poulson notes that legislators have used the surpluses to advance their own political agendas, devising a slew of tax cuts in the last session that favored various special interests such as mining companies. Bruce, too, has raged against the redistribution schemes, calling the recent business personal property tax reduction "a disaster" and "a windfall for big business." (Not that Bruce favors the tax, which he calls "the single stupidest tax in Colorado." He'd like to see it phased out entirely.)

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