Jefferson County is no social utopia these days — and you can thank the TABOR Amendment for that.
"Its preferred interpretation shall reasonably restrain most the growth of government," proclaims the second sentence of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, Douglas Bruce's 1992 ballot measure that became Article X, Section 10 of the Colorado Constitution. But while TABOR certainly restrained government's growth, it has only multiplied confusion.
I dug up a copy of TABOR last week, after reading through the sample ballot produced by the Denver Election Commission, which includes descriptions of the statewide measures as well as Referred Issue 3A —- a $454 million bond proposal for Denver Public Schools. Per Article X, the ballot language includes required fiscal information: For example, the bond would carry a maximum repayment cost of $990 million, and is "estimated to result in a tax increase of approximately $5 dollars per year for every $100,000 of residential property value." Those mind-numbing (and wallet-pinching) details are followed by a "summary of written comments in favor" of 3A, including this: "Yes on 3A will give Denver's kids the 21st century tools and training they need to compete for the jobs of tomorrow."
You don't find such cheerleading in the "blue book," the 2008 State Ballot Information Booklet recently sent to every Colorado household with a registered voter. But that's because another, non-TABOR provision of the Colorado Constitution charges the Legislative Council of the Colorado General Assembly with writing a summary and analysis of every statewide proposal, and only statewide proposals. Council staffers take this task so seriously that they not only listen to pro and con arguments for every measure, but they go through three drafts before finalizing their blue book language — and even then, anyone concerned about that language can complain to a legislative subcommittee before the blue book is published. The staffers even include arguments against a proposal when no one else has made one — regarding obsolete Prohibition-era wording in the Colorado Constitution, for instance, which this year's Referendum N would eliminate, thus erasing "an interesting period in Colorado's history."
But the DPS bond proposal only affects Denver County. And if there are any arguments against the measure, you won't find them on the Denver ballot, which simply notes that "no comments were filed by the constitutional deadline."
The comment process is also outlined in TABOR: "Two summaries, up to 500 words each, one for and one against the proposal, of written comments filed with the election officer by 45 days before the election. No summary shall mention names of persons or private groups, nor any endorsements of or resolutions against the proposal. Petition representatives following these rules shall write this summary for their petition. The election officer shall maintain and accurately summarize all other relevant written comments."
Which means that under TABOR, the election officer — the very entity that pushed a certain proposal on the ballot — is responsible for providing both pro and con comments for the county to publish on that ballot. In this case, the election officer is Denver Public Schools, which never received any arguments against the bond measure, says spokesman Alex Sanchez. No doubt much to DPS's relief.
The Jefferson County Public Schools district was not so lucky. Jeffco had already collected arguments for and against its own 3A, part of a proposal for a 4.4 mill levy increase that would raise up to $34 million annually, when, ten minutes before the deadline, Arvada resident Thomas Graham arrived with a witness and some comments — pro comments, he said. "Compared to other professions and trades, teachers are poorly paid, and it is hoped that beginning salaries in the six-digit range can be offered within the next three or four years," he wrote. "It is frequently pointed out that senior citizens with fixed incomes are hard-pressed to shoulder increases in real property tax. These people should recognize that their reduced productivity calls for them to be replaced by the youth of our nation." And so it continued, right up through a call for "progress toward the Socialist utopia through education."
Graham insisted that the comments be published as part of the summary in favor of the measure. And according to two 2006 Colorado Court of Appeals rulings cited by the Jeffco school district's attorneys, his comments — and the requested placement — fell within "protected political speech."
And so this past weekend, Jeffco residents who received their own sample ballots suddenly found themselves in a bizarre world that was no social utopia — one where the arguments in favor of a school bond measure insulted everyone from Jeffco school district employees to senior citizens.
"I'm so outraged by it," says school superintendent Cindy Stevenson, who's spent the last few days fielding calls from potential voters who wonder what, exactly, is going on in their county. "It is so hurtful. Really a political dirty trick."
But since Graham's tactic didn't leave enough time to scrounge up more pro-bond opinions to crowd some of Graham's more facetious comments out of the TABOR-required 500-word summary, the only other option would be to refuse to print them at all — and that might have led to a court case that would have further delayed the bond vote. "This should be language people can trust, that has integrity," Stevenson notes. "TABOR language isn't the time for satire."
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And on that point, and perhaps only that point, Douglas Bruce would agree. "The irony is that this is the first time that the government has had done to it what the government has done to the taxpayers: filing bogus arguments," he says.
But Graham stands by the facts in his comments, even if he presented them as satire. "I've been following the school district for a long time," he says. "And I turned it in at the last minute because I'm familiar with their tricks." Even so, he was surprised that Jeffco included his comments — but if the district hadn't, he would have complained to the Colorado Secretary of State, and from there could have gone to court. Where Graham would have been unlikely to attain the same level of satisfaction — and attention — he's currently enjoying.
"Our courts are so utterly corrupt that they have ruled in favor of TABOR only once in sixteen years," Bruce says — and that wasn't either of the Court of Appeals rulings cited by the Jeffco school district's attorneys. "The judges in this state do everything they possibly can to make the TABOR Amendment look bad."
When really, TABOR can look bad enough all on its own.