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The Hundred Days' War

How hard is it to find 90,000 citizens who want a tax cut? Ask Douglas Bruce.

For the record, Douglas Bruce is not a socialist. You don't have to be one, he says, to despise the regressive tax structure in the state of Colorado, which heaps an unjust load of the state and local tax burden on the backs of the poor.

"This is really a moral crusade," Bruce says. "The people at the bottom in this state are paying 3.6 times more of their money to taxes than those at the top. That's immoral."

For the record, Douglas Bruce is not a bleeding-heart liberal, either. But that hasn't stopped him from beating the bushes looking for socially conscious activists of all political persuasions -- Young Democrats, student anarchists, disabled grandmas, tree-hugging welfare moms, gay Bible clubs, metaphysical Maoists, you name it -- who might want to join his moral crusade and earn a few bucks at the same time.

"This could be a tremendous fundraiser," he says. "A group could make $2,000 in a weekend for a good cause while doing something socially beneficial in itself."

All those folks have to do, Bruce says, is stand outside a supermarket with a petition and ask shoppers a few simple questions: Are you a registered voter? Do you want a tax cut? Sign here, please.

Bruce, the conservative anti-tax activist who authored the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment, which limits state spending, is back on the warpath. Fresh from his quixotic losing battle against Governor Bill Owens's highway bonds package, a campaign in which he was outspent by highway proponents at an exponential rate ("Road Warriors," October 21, 1999), he's launched a statewide petition drive, TaxCut 2000, in an effort to put what he describes as a "modest" tax cut on November's ballot. If successful, the drive would mark the first time in state history that citizens actually have an opportunity to vote on a tax decrease rather than an increase.

But TaxCut 2000 is up against a tight deadline. After battling officials for almost five years to get permission to circulate his petition, Bruce has less than a hundred days to gather the 90,000 signatures he'll need to put the issue on the ballot. (Colorado requires 62,595 valid signatures on statewide initiatives, but Bruce, a veteran of several petition campaigns, figures the state will reject up to one-third of every batch.) To collect that many in just a few weeks, he's been forced to hire paid petition-gatherers, just like any special-interest pleader.

Bruce says his initiative doesn't lack popular support, but most of his backers would rather donate money than time to such an effort. "People would rather write a check then stand outside a supermarket and be rebuffed by four out of five passersby," he notes. "Money's fine, but it doesn't do us any good if we don't get the signatures. The general public doesn't understand how important this is."

TaxCut 2000 is a two-sentence amendment to TABOR that would require a $25 reduction of utility, vehicle, income and property taxes at the state and local level. The cut would increase by $25 a year indefinitely. Many small charges on cable, phone and electric bills ("petty nuisance taxes," Bruce calls them) would be phased out immediately, while more substantial income and property-tax bills would, in many cases, simply escalate at a slower rate than they would otherwise.

The plan has been attacked by various interests suspicious of Bruce's agenda; one Pueblo Chieftain editorial accused him of seeking to "gut government." But Bruce, who achieved a similar phase-out of local utility taxes in Colorado Springs a few years ago, maintains that the cut would not affect local services; would slow the rate of growth of state revenues by only 1 percent; and would be of greatest benefit to those taxpayers earning the least income, since a disproportionate share of their money goes to pay vehicle registration fees, phone surcharges, and so on.

Bruce claims to have submitted 180 different versions of his tax cut to state ballot title officials since 1995, only to be stymied each time over arcane linguistic and procedural disputes. The 181st version passed shortly before the holidays, he says, only because the lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association (who'd protested each version) failed to file a timely objection.

The struggle over TaxCut 2000 may be emblematic of the larger battle to restrict citizens' initiatives in Colorado. In the wake of the TABOR taxpayer revolt, there have been numerous failed legislative efforts to raise the number of signatures required, shorten the timeline or otherwise curb petition efforts.

"We've seen the legislature try to restrict the process and make it more difficult for citizens to have access to it," says Pete Maysmith, program director of the Colorado office of Common Cause. "It's a classic reaction by elected officials who want to retain more power over decision-making."

To recruit petition-gatherers, Bruce has set up a Web site (www.taxcut2000.com) and a special hotline (303-753-5050). He's taken out help-wanted ads in various publications (including Westword) and contacted service organizations and student employment offices, offering to pay from forty to fifty cents per signature, with a bonus for high producers. A true hustler of John Hancocks could make as much as $500 or $600 a week, Bruce says -- comparable to what private companies pay professional canvassers. The overall effort could cost in excess of $35,000, much of it financed by Bruce himself; but with the clock ticking down to his March 31 deadline, the output to date has been low.

"I wish I could go out and get 90,000 signatures myself, but it's physically impossible," he says. "If we had 900 people on standby, they could all get one hundred each in a day and they're done. But a lot of people, frankly, are afraid to petition. You try to hand somebody a flier and they act like you're going to rape them. It's sad, but that's why we're in this situation."

Although he expects the measure to pass handily if he gets the necessary signatures, Bruce also predicts that it will be opposed by "the state legislature, the teachers' union and everyone else who lives off taxes. They would fight it if it's $25 or 25 cents. They don't want people to realize that they have the power to control the government."

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