By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
Douglas Bruce doesn't do mellow.
Rail-happy RTD candidates want to solve Denver's traffic nightmare. Are they just spinning their wheels?
By Alan Prendergast
Squaring off against a room full of legislators and lobbyists, the anti-tax activist is a study in petulance. He frowns at the testimony of his opponents. He passes urgent notes to Legislative Council staffers, leaves his seat to whisper to a state senator, sits down and fidgets with his glasses. Irritation, both giving and receiving, seems to be Bruce's lot in life, but this arduous wrangling over a few sentences in a public document threatens to transport him to new heights of exasperation.
"I don't want to sue anybody," Bruce says, when it's his turn to address the council. But there is a rumble of frustration in his voice that suggests he's going to do exactly that if things don't get straightened out in a hurry. Can't these people see that they're forcing him to go after them?
Bruce has come to today's hearing in the basement of the State Capitol for a showdown over the blue book, the state-funded pamphlet mailed out to 1.5 million households across the state every fall to inform voters of upcoming ballot questions. This year's version contains only one proposal, but it's a whopper. If approved, Referendum A would allow the state to borrow up to $1.7 billion -- and repay a total debt of $2.3 billion (including $600 million or more in interest) out of future federal funding -- to help finance two dozen high-priority highway projects, including expansion of I-25 through southeast Denver to Douglas County, the most congested stretch of freeway in the state.
The blue book is supposed to offer an impartial analysis of arguments for and against the proposal. But that's not easy in the matter of Referendum A -- or TRANS, short for Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes, the type of bonds that would be issued. The measure enjoys lopsided support among the powers that be. Governor Bill Owens staked his campaign last fall on a pledge to fix the I-25 traffic mess without raising taxes, and TRANS is his baby ("The Road to Trouble," May 13). Many members of the Legislative Council are solidly behind it, too, including the panel's chair, Ray Powers, president of the state senate and a principal sponsor of the bill that created the proposal.
Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment and the state's leading scourge of bloated government projects, opposes the measure. Over the past few weeks he's submitted more than a hundred proposed changes to the blue book, challenging the assertions by the pro-TRANS camp and beefing up the arguments against the scheme. The council's nonpartisan staff adopted many of his suggestions. But as the five-hour hearing winds down, the Legislative Council sets about trimming Bruce's additions, wiping out scary words and phrases like debtand default, deficit spending and eventual tax increase. As he sees it, the supposedly fair and unbiased blue-book process is being "hijacked" by politicians under his very nose.
"The key argument against this proposal is that it's a debt proposal," Bruce patiently explains to the panel, as if correcting schoolchildren. "Why can't I have as one of the arguments that government debt is a bad idea? Thomas Jefferson thought so."
His voice dripping with sarcasm, Bruce points out that not only does borrowing billions fly in the face of the TABOR amendment's strict cap on government spending, but the proposal contains a hidden "slush fund." The bond money could potentially earn millions of dollars in interest before it's spent on the highway projects, and nothing in Powers's bill designates that the interest money must be spent on roads.
"Absolutely not true," counters transportation chief Tom Norton, who breezes in to the hearing to reassure legislators. "Everything that's in the bill has to be used for transportation projects."
Bruce insists that the panel summon Sharon Eubanks, the legislative attorney who actually drafted the bill. Eubanks says that the interest income is specifically exempted from the TABOR limits and isn't designated. Powers says the loophole can be fixed in the next legislative session, but score one for the taxpayer advocate. Norton is wrong. Bruce is right.
Yet no matter how many problems Bruce exposes in the financing plan -- and by his count, they are legion -- he still can't avoid being home-teamed by the TRANS-friendly lawmakers. Englewood senator Tom Blickensderfer even suggests scrapping an entirely accurate chart of soaring road spending over the past six years in the interest of "trying to get people to think positively about this referendum." An adulterated blue book, robbed of the pungent anti-TRANS arguments Bruce had fought to include, passes by an 11-1 vote.
"That was not one of the finer moments of the legislature," says Senator Mike Feeley, the Democratic minority leader, who had to leave the hearing before the final vote. "People's preconceptions and dislike of Doug Bruce got in the way of an objective analysis."
Powers, whom Bruce challenged unsuccessfully for his Colorado Springs-based Senate seat in 1996, denies that the process was skewed. "I'm very familiar with Mr. Bruce," he says dryly. "We have not been the best of friends. But I felt we treated him very fairly. We certainly have a right of opinion."
For Bruce, the evisceration of the blue book is a major blow. The pro-TRANS campaign has raised more than $700,000 -- most of it from construction companies and bond dealers -- to blitz voters with TV, radio and direct-mail advertising. Bruce has a handful of volunteers and expects to spend $10,000 of his own money to distribute fliers and bumper stickers urging #A VOTE NO IT'S YOUR DOUGH. The blue book was his best shot at getting his message into the hands of millions of voters.
"It obviously hurts," he says, "because when you have a low-budget campaign, one of the key things you have is the ability to get your arguments out in this publication."
A few days after the hearing, Bruce went to Denver District Court in an effort to stop publication of the blue book. Judge Paul Markson refused to intervene, saying that Bruce could challenge the process if Referendum A passed. Bruce's response was typically caustic: "The judge came up with this idiotic ruling that he doesn't have to enforce the [state] Constitution until after the election."
But Bruce still manages an end-run around the legislature. Under a provision of TABOR, proponents and opponents of ballot issues are allowed to submit 500-word summaries of their positions for distribution by county election officials. Bruce's comments attacking the plan as vague and fiscally irresponsible, a "huge potential ripoff" with its own "secret slush fund," weigh in at a tidy 497 words and will be sent to voters unedited.
Such canny tactics are essential to the survival of Bruce's low-rent crusade. Early polling data indicates that TRANS is heavily favored by traffic-weary commuters, but Bruce dismisses the numbers as meaningless. Other massive transportation proposals were voted down three times in recent years, despite well-funded campaigns designed to cajole citizens into opening their wallets.
"The same list of projects has been rejected in statewide elections two years in a row," he says, "and these arrogant bastards are coming back a third time with the same list. People ought to be outraged that the politicians are spending $4 million in state money to have an election to tell us we didn't know what we were doing in 1997 and 1998."
But TRANS is a more sophisticated proposal than its predecessors -- it's not a tax increase, although Bruce would argue otherwise -- and the bastardy pushing for its passage make up a formidable bunch. Bruce stands virtually alone against a broad spectrum of political and business leaders, including many of his former allies in the conservative camp. His critics question whether the acerbic Bruce can build an effective coalition to defeat the measure, but Bruce doesn't believe he has to win friends to influence people.
Actually, the fact that Bruce is so well-loathed among the state's power brokers may be to his advantage. He's planning to tap into the same average-joe mistrust of politicians that swept TABOR into being in 1992, a taxpayer revolt that changed the way government operates in the state. As Bruce sees it, TRANS represents a major threat to TABOR and what it stands for, and his lonely crusade is the kind of campaign politicians fear most: a matter of principle rather than personal gain.
"I'm getting zero out of this," he says. "That's what they find so frustrating. They can't pin me with some improper motive. I don't even have any kids who are going to get stuck with the debt."
If politics is the art of compromise, then Douglas Bruce is no politician. It's his way or the highway.
The quandary over how to address the growing transportation needs of Colorado's booming population has produced some peculiar alliances in recent months, with Governor Owens leading the way. At this time last year, candidate Owens, like Bruce, was strongly opposed to Referendum B, a measure that would have allowed the state to retain $1 billion in surplus tax revenues and apply half of that amount to transportation projects. This year he's proposing that the state go $2.3 billion into debt to fund many of the same projects.
Two years ago, Owens was one of a horde of conservative detractors of the Regional Transportation District's $6 billion Guide the Ride plan, which would have raised taxes to build major transit improvements, including several light-rail lines, throughout the Denver metro area. A veteran light-rail critic, last fall he also scoffed at RTD's push to extend the current rail line southeast, arguing that a fixed guideway bus line would be a cheaper, more effective solution. But in recent months he's campaigned in support of Referendum 4A, RTD's ballot proposal to borrow $457 million through the bond market to help pay for a rail line along south I-25, in conjunction with the highway expansion.
The governor's supporters defend his efforts as entirely consistent with his campaign promises. Borrowing the money for highways, they say, won't raise anybody's taxes, because the debt will be repaid with "anticipated" federal funds. TRANS financing, now used by all but a few states, allows Colorado to put dollars to work that it otherwise would not receive for years, cutting the timetable for construction and saving hundreds of millions from the ravages of inflation -- enough, depending on market conditions, to potentially make up for the interest paid on the bonds.
"There's something to be said for getting these projects done," says Dick Wadhams, the Owens aide who took a leave of absence to run the pro-TRANS campaign. "Even if the construction inflation and the cost of the bonds offset each other, money would still be saved because we're doing it faster. There will be an economy of scale."
Wadhams believes that the TRANS backers have learned their lesson from the collapse of Guide the Ride and other huge, overreaching transportation projects. "This is clearly not a tax increase, and the projects are quite specific and tangible," he says. "The referendum is not on whether to build these projects. It's on whether we're going to build them in 25 years or in twelve."
Owens has described the light-rail line as "complementary" to I-25 lane expansion and has suggested that it makes sense, in terms of traffic engineering and long-range planning, to embark on both at the same time. Even in tandem, though, the projects aren't exactly bargains. Expanding nineteen miles of I-25 could consume up to $600 million of the TRANS money. The total cost of the rail line has ballooned from $450 million to $874 million, to be paid through a combination of as-yet-uncommitted federal transit funds and future surpluses RTD wants to exempt from the TABOR requirements. Despite the daunting price tag, the linkage of the two proposals has enlisted support from a wide array of interests, from developers and large corporate employers to environmentalists hungry for more rail.
By contrast, the opposition has been so grassroots as to be almost underground. A few conservatives, including maverick RTD boardmember Dick Sargent, have groused about the dubious projected ridership figures of the rail line; some pro-rail advocates have expressed fears that the line's enormous cost will cannibalize any hope of building effective rapid transit elsewhere in the metro area for decades to come. But aside from Douglas Bruce's volleys, TRANS has chugged along virtually unchallenged.
"The governor is getting a pass on this one," says Mike Feeley. "Where's Jon Caldara?"
Caldara, the former RTD board chairman who led under-funded but devastating campaigns to defeat Guide the Ride in 1997 and Referendum B last year, has been relegated to the sidelines by his duties as director of the Independence Institute, the Golden-based conservative think tank. Although the institute has issued its own white paper critical of Owens's highway plan and pushing revenue-generating toll lanes rather than light rail, Caldara can't plunge directly into the fray without jeopardizing the group's nonprofit tax status (although Bruce can, and did, borrow Caldara's winning anti-Referendum B slogan). Still, he expresses astonishment at the strange coalition that's rallied around the two proposals.
"To see the governor pushing light rail is a very odd thing," Caldara says. "I don't think there's a single person in his administration who wants to see light rail down that corridor, but they're willing to pay that as a political ransom to get TRANS."
Noting that Owens recently described the projects as fitting "hand in glove," he adds, "When I hear 'hand in glove,' my next thought is: 'Bend over.'"
Caldara says he's "jonesing" to campaign actively against the rail line. (Last week he hosted a debate on the issue that was shunned by leading rail advocates.) He wonders if Owens's support for rail may actually hurt his highway proposal, given RTD's recent history of misfired campaigns, public squabbling and service glitches. And he envisions a "nightmare" scenario in which rural voters, unimpressed with the supposed statewide benefits of the highway package, defeat TRANS while RTD's rail line squeaks to victory in Denver.
"I'm not convinced that TRANS is going to pass," Caldara says. "If I had to bet, I'd say that the RTD thing is going to kill TRANS. The governor has made a very bad calculation. What he doesn't realize is that anyone who goes to bed with RTD is going to wake up with a social disease."
In the absence of other prominent naysayers, Douglas Bruce has become the undisputed leader of the opposition to Referendum A, the guy that the dailies' op/ed people invite to write the "con" piece. But Bruce insists he's not alone in his fight. While some environmental groups may have been co-opted by Owens's support for the rail package, others, including the Sierra Club, have come out against TRANS, arguing that it merely promotes more irresponsible sprawl and one-person-per-car traffic woes.
"There's a lot of concern among environmentalists," says Bruce. "Although we don't agree on all the reasons to oppose it, we share a distaste for subsidies -- particularly subsidies for developers and big handouts of corporate welfare for bond dealers and highway contractors. These are the unholy three that are pushing this issue."
Mark Itkonen of Citizens for Balanced Transportation, who's been distributing anti-TRANS fliers in conjunction with Bruce, agrees. "The governor is being opportunistic," he says. "He sees that people want light rail, and he thinks he can piggyback his highway project on it." Since Bruce is not campaigning against the rail measure, he adds, "we really have no disagreement."
Yet there's no question that Bruce has done most of the heavy lifting in the opposition campaign. In fact, he's largely responsible for forcing a public vote on the issue. Last spring, after passage of the bill authorizing the borrowing scheme, Bruce and a trio of Democratic legislators went to court, arguing that the state couldn't go into debt without a vote of the people. Despite some quibbling over the definition of "debt," the Colorado Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor.
Since that time, Bruce has acted as a one-man wrecking crew, battling the highway plan in every available forum. He's attacked the plan's assumptions about interest rates, pointing out that there's no set limit to the amount of the $2.3 billion that might go to interest and other financing costs rather than roads.
He's argued that to sink into decades of debt on the promise of repayment through a federal highway program that currently doesn't extend beyond five years is to court default, jeopardizing the state's reputation and credit rating in the process.
He's suggested alternative sources of funding and advocated a pay-as-you-go approach, raising the specter of a tax hike down the line to fund other services as the TRANS commitment devours incoming highway moneys.
He's sneered at the pro-TRANS camp's efforts to make roads and light rail on I-25 a package deal, comparing the situation to "two crippled boxers grabbing onto each other in order to stand up in the ring."
At a formal hearing a few weeks ago, the former Los Angeles prosecutor even quizzed Owens and his lieutenants about whether they were using state resources and time to campaign for TRANS. His inquiry turned up questionable trips and meetings and pro-TRANS articles prepared at taxpayers' expense, but an administrative law judge found nothing improper since none of the activities directly urged people to "Vote for Referendum A."
"It's scary that the government now has this license to steal by having unlimited campaign activity as long as they don't say the four magic words," Bruce says. "Thomas Jefferson said to compel a man to pay money for the propagation of ideas with which he disagrees is sinful and tyrannical."
Perhaps the strongest case Bruce has made against TRANS -- one that might attract enough negative votes outside the Denver area to tip the balance -- has to do with the uncertainty about what a couple billion dollars might buy these days. Although the blue book contains a list of 24 road projects that are supposed to be accelerated by the funding, the total cost of those projects is more than $4.4 billion. Regular highway funds will be spent on some of the projects as well, but it's unclear which of the roads will get the TRANS funds first or how that will affect the completion of others. No highway work will be speeded up by thirteen years, as Wadhams claims; the I-25 work will be completed nine years sooner, but some projects would actually be delayed by the influx of new cash. And if the widening of I-25 through the Denver Tech Center hogs roughly a third of the money, where does that leave Durango, Dacono, Pueblo and Frisco?
Bruce is hardly alone in his reservations. "Outside of I-25, anyone who thinks they're going to get a rebuilt highway out of this is kidding themselves," says Democrat Feeley. "It's an awful lot of money, but it's not nearly enough."
But Wadhams says he's "comfortable" with the way the proposal has identified specific projects, and legislators who helped carry the TRANS bill insist the measure will benefit road projects throughout the state. "It isn't a Front Range versus Western Slope thing," says Speaker of the House Russell George of Rifle, who's held numerous meetings with constituents in recent months to explain the intricacies of the bill. "My whole political presence requires me to be accurate and honest about this."
Yet Bruce has hammered away at the plan's vast promises and equally formidable unknowns -- exploiting every contradiction, hinting at deception and calling into question the trustworthiness of the politicians stumping for the measure. On this last point, his critics say, he may have gone too far. One of Bruce's greatest liabilities as a campaigner is his bellicosity, his scarcely concealed contempt for "trough-feeding parasites" and "borrow-and-spenders" -- in short, lawmakers, lobbyists and anyone else snuffling after his tax dollars.
"Doug is often his own worst enemy," says Feeley. "Even his good points are lost because of his approach -- the acerbicness, the out-and-out nastiness. He's insulting. He's demeaning. One reason you haven't seen more organized opposition is that no one wants to align themselves with Doug Bruce."
No one in the legislature, anyway. Russell George recalls how Bruce lit into him last spring when George was carrying the highway bill, drawing an invidious comparison between the Speaker of the House's tactics and the Red-baiting of Joe McCarthy.
"I turned to him," George says, "and said, 'You're out of your goddamned mind. You don't need to abuse me like that.' If people ever listen to his arguments, he's brilliant. He studies, and there is some meat to what he does. If you're really trying to do the job right, you kind of have to work with him.
"But the way he presents his case eventually turns off the best of us. Most people don't even pay attention when he walks in. They have a tendency to walk out. I think he's lost any influence he could have had otherwise. He's certainly lost the influence that his ideas might merit."
Legislators accustomed to Bruce's tirades tend to view them as an expression of his deep-seated disgust with government in all forms. "He always runs a negative campaign," says Ray Powers. "It wouldn't seem like Douglas Bruce if he was less inflammatory."
Some, though, have detected what may be additional animus in the anti-TRANS campaign. "He's always been sort of over the edge," says Feeley, "but he's become a caricature of a caricature. I think he's frustrated by not having any assistance."
But Caldara, who's taken a few pokes at the credibility of politicians himself, sees merit to Bruce's approach. "Doug, as usual, brings up intellectually valid arguments," he says. "The question is, Does his personality help or hinder bringing those arguments out? So far in this campaign, I think it's helping."
A less combative Bruce might win more pals in the legislature, Caldara suggests, but there's something to be said for making a lot of noise when you're up against a well-funded foe. "Even his friends don't always like listening to Doug Bruce, which forces him to play the role he plays," Caldara says. "A lot of that vibe is from Doug, but a lot of it has been a stereotype that the media has put on him."
Bruce says he's not trying to impress legislators. He's running a citizen's campaign. He hands out his phone number (719-550-0010) and e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) indiscriminately, saying he's "willing to have my privacy invaded and possibly get some crank calls" in order to recruit more volunteers. He figures if all the taxpayers who received fat refunds courtesy of the TABOR amendment would simply show their appreciation by spending a few hours distributing anti-TRANS fliers, he could blanket the state with his message.
"If I have to prey on their guilt or something to reactivate their citizenship, I'll do it," he says. "It's hard to get people motivated to do anything. Most people are just couch potatoes. But I'd like to get out 200,000 fliers in the Denver metro area alone."
Feeley says that the fifty-year-old Bruce may be too curmudgeonly to rally widespread support for his cause. "If he was ever able to get hold of himself, he might be able to get someone to listen to him for a change," Feeley says. "He's just so damn obnoxious...We need to get him a date."
Bruce, who describes himself as "single and looking," says his opponents focus on personal attacks because they can't refute his arguments. "If I were denounced by the Mafia," he says, "would that be a reason for people to vote for Referendum A?"
For all the rigors of the campaign, Bruce has not lost his sense of humor -- which manages to be corny and sarcastic, often barbed, and always punitive.
A legislator stops Bruce in the halls of government and asks for his card; he hands her the six of diamonds. Discussing the literature he's prepared urging people to kill TRANS, he refers to "my handout," then immediately corrects himself: "Not a handout. I don't believe in handouts. A flier." Asked about the well-heeled pro-TRANS crowd, he quips, "They certainly have a lot of heels on their side."
The wisecracks continue as he takes a break from TRANS to meet with legislative staffers on another obsession -- his quest to amend TABOR to include a reduction in utility, vehicle, property and income taxes by $25 each per year. Sitting down with Greg Fraser of legislative legal services and Tom Dunn of the Legislative Council staff, he remarks, "I'm not very experienced at this. You're going to have to tell me how this goes."
Fraser and Dunn barely crack a smile. Like other staffers, they've seen a great deal of Douglas Bruce lately. By his estimate, he's submitted more than 175 variations on his proposed amendment, most of them no more than two sentences long. His output accounts for roughly three-fourths of all the citizen initiatives presented to the legislative staff during this two-year election cycle. Bruce says the multiple submissions are necessary because his petitions keep getting tied up by title-board officials or in court over minor technicalities, such as whether a franchise fee is a "charge" or a "tax."
"The government has made it clear they'll do every dishonest thing they can to keep this petition from getting on the ballot," Bruce tells the staffers, defending the four latest versions of his amendment. "This whole process is out of Franz Kafka."
Bruce's mission strikes many people as Kafkaesque, but opinions diverge on who's playing the role of the repugnant giant insect that disrupts the normal flow of things. Reviewing and setting hearings on the flood of petitions has consumed hundreds of hours of legislative staff time in recent months and cost $95,000, prompting some legislators to accuse Bruce of abusing the initiative process.
"It's astounding the amount of manpower that's been devoted to this," says Russell George. "The process is there as a safety valve for anybody, and it's a damn shame when it's abused."
Bruce says he's simply responding to the machinations of bureaucrats who don't want more tax cuts. "It's another emblem of their corruption," he says. "What they're saying is, 'If I hit you with a club 175 times and you get up every time, you, the victim, are abusing the process.' They wouldn't mind if I had a petition to change the state fish to the rainbow trout."
In the wake of TABOR, he says, state officials have sought to chip away at the citizen's right to put proposals on the ballot. "It used to be they'd nail you after you turned in your petitions," he says. "Then they used the single-subject rule to stop you from even starting to collect signatures. Now they've made it so you can't even file a petition." (Last week, one of Bruce's petitions finally made it, without protest, past the title board.)
Petitions have been the mainstay of Bruce's arsenal since he burst onto the political stage like a precocious but unpopular understudy more than a decade ago. A disillusioned California attorney turned Colorado real-estate investor, Bruce spent several years and $100,000 of his own money crusading for tax reform. Two of his ballot proposals had already been defeated when he knocked the political establishment on its rear in 1992 with the bruising, successful TABOR campaign, during which he blasted various elected officials as pimps, liars and crooks and described judges as "politicians in Halloween costumes."
TABOR made all tax increases subject to voter approval and established strict limits on revenues and spending, the growth of which cannot exceed inflation and local population growth -- forcing the state to disgorge hundreds of millions of dollars in tax refunds in recent years. The measure also made Douglas Bruce a household name in Colorado.
Since 1992, Bruce has sought to extend his taxpayer revolt into areas such as campaign financing reform, with limited success. He's also devoted countless hours to defending TABOR when local governments have sought exemptions from the spending cap; he contends that many of the "de-Brucing" efforts are illegal and disregard constitutional restrictions on such exemptions. "They're acting like this was just a temporary victory and they can dismantle it one election at a time at the local level," he says.
His relentless, in-your-face campaigning has earned Bruce a dual image as crusader and crank. He's been portrayed as a loudmouthed bully and as a misunderstood idealist, as a tight-fisted misfit who appeals to the selfishness of the comfortable middle class ("Vote no, it's your dough") and as a Jeffersonian defender of the common man. When he's railing about the dishonest bureaucrats who are trying to thwart his simple two-sentence amendment, he sounds like an insufferable character out of Tennessee Williams: Big Daddy Bruce hollering, "Mendacity! Mendacity!" But reducing all those pesky taxes on phone service, auto registration and the like by trimming them by $25 a year would actually benefit lower-income consumers far more than the idle rich.
The conflicting views of Bruce are particularly apparent in his long-running battle with the City of Denver over the dilapidated condition of his rental properties. The city has pursued Bruce for code violations on several occasions, branding him as a slumlord. Bruce claims the city has been pursuing a vendetta against him because of his activism. His side of the story didn't get much play, though, until this past summer, when Denver police found a small bag of cocaine on the patio of one of his apartment houses and arrested the property's handyman. The city attorney's office then filed a complaint under Denver's controversial public-nuisance law, which allows the city to close or seize property in a civil forfeiture without having to prove any criminal action on the part of the owner.
Bruce's response was to fling a baggie of cornstarch on the lawn of Assistant City Attorney Kurt Stiegelmeier's home and take a photo of it, to demonstrate how easy it would be to set up a property owner for confiscation. Stiegelmeier obtained a restraining order against Bruce and the handyman; Bruce and the handyman's attorney countered by asking Denver County Judge Robert Crew to remove the city attorney from the case. The entire matter is now under appeal, but Bruce managed to obtain a police memo that suggested the public-nuisance law was invoked because the property was identified as "a Douglas Bruce property" -- giving new credence to Bruce's conspiracy claims. Soon civil libertarians, including old foes such as former Democratic legislator Jerry Kopel, were defending Bruce and denouncing the city's actions.
Bruce says he'd rather talk about TRANS than the battles over his properties. Even though he believes his political and business tribulations are related, he says he doesn't want to be involved in a "pity piece." He does, however, express a certain indignation that the city attorney's office went to the trouble of seeking a restraining order against him.
"The prosecutor overreacted because he's a hysterical fascist," Bruce says. "It just exposes what vicious bastards they are. They've been doing this to me for years."
Another day, another faceoff between Douglas Bruce and a group of rabbit-eyed legislators. This time it's an interim committee on fiscal policy, convening to discuss the feasibility of a new study of Colorado's tax system. Wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, Bruce is easy to spot; he's the only male speaker not attired in coat and tie.
Bruce leads with a pun. "Hi, Ron," he says, nodding at Senator Ron Teck, the committee's chair. "I say that to establish that this is a 'high-tech' committee."
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.
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.)
"It's immoral for government to be parceling out tax breaks," he says. "People are tired of being bribed with their own money and then being punished and pushed around."
Bruce is passionately proprietary about TABOR. He seems genuinely surprised that people aren't more grateful for what it's accomplished and don't understand his ferocious efforts to preserve its legacy. His desire to protect his creation is the driving force behind his perennial forays into public life, including the campaign against TRANS.
In fact, TRANS may be the most severe test to date. Whatever arguments Bruce might advance about dubious construction timetables and exorbitant interest, he doesn't really share the environmentalists' hatred of highways. His mission has a deeply personal side. If TRANS passes, it opens the door to similar financing schemes and surging government growth that could jeopardize a decade of hard work. Despite the forces gathered against him, Douglas Bruce isn't going to sit quietly and watch that happen.
Bruce believes that government should live within its means, mean what it says, and take no more out of people's pockets than they are willing to yield. His solution to the governmental form of highway robbery is stunningly simple, just like the answer he gave to legislative staffers when they asked him what he hoped to accomplish by adding a $25-a-year-per-tax cut to TABOR.
"The government won't obey the law," Bruce told them. "It never will obey the law. The only recourse is to take away their money so they have nothing to do but sit around and twiddle their thumbs."