Bruce Talk

At first glance, the Golden Corral on the north side of Colorado Springs doesn't seem to be the right place to be talking about tightening the ol' belt a few notches. Patrons make trip after trip to the restaurant's all-you-can-eat buffet, piling their plates high with steaks, chicken, salads, soups, sweets and mounds of creamy carbohydrates and sticky brown sauces.

But to anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, the Corral is the ideal setting for talking about the state's budget mess and his not-so-modest proposals for getting out of it. The buffet goes for $7.99 plus tax. It's a feast for the budget-minded, a beacon of plenty amid fiscal restraint, value for the dollar -- no frills, no hidden surcharges. In principle, it's not unlike the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), the tax-limitation measure that Bruce authored and voters passed in 1992, curtailing the state government's ability to devour surplus revenues rather than refund them to the taxpayer. Take all you want (or all that the voters allow you to have), but eat all you take; no doggie bags, please.

Over the past decade, TABOR has forced the state to disgorge more than $3 billion in tax refunds and tax cuts. Bruce's critics -- Democrats, mostly -- suggest that the money could have been better spent on programs and services that are now feeling the pinch of the economic downturn. And with state lawmakers wrestling with an $850 million budget shortfall, even some staunch Republicans are talking about tinkering with TABOR's strict provisions.

Bruce is having none of it. "TABOR is working like a charm," he insists, tucking into his well-stocked salad plate. "The problem is that it's being violated. They're playing games to try to get around it."

In his recent State of the State address, Governor Bill Owens vowed not to hike taxes and praised TABOR, calling it an "economic bulletproof vest" that's kept Colorado's budget from expanding to a point where even more drastic cuts would be required. Bruce appreciates the kudos but bristles at some of Owens's maneuvers to deal with the shortfall. He contends that the governor's proposal to delay state employees' final paychecks of the fiscal year until the following month, an accounting sleight of hand that would result in paper savings of more than $130 million, would be "multiple-year debt" in violation of TABOR.

Bruce is still seething over past assaults on TABOR, including a bill that allows the state to pay one fiscal year's refunds out of the next year's revenues -- a "Ponzi scheme," he says, based on the mistaken assumption that the revenues would keep increasing. At the close of last year's General Assembly, lawmakers worked frantically at a quarter of midnight on a measure that will allow them to "recapture" more of the surplus in future years, based on a population-adjustment formula that defies what TABOR allows.

"It was the most disgusting legislative action I've seen in my life," Bruce says, spearing a mushroom. "Owens was literally breathing down [state representative] Ron Fairbank's neck, after he took him out and read him the riot act -- all so the government could get billions of dollars more, yet Owens could campaign on the grounds that he hadn't raised taxes. Taking away somebody's refund is a tax increase."

The latest challenge to Bruce's creation comes from two longtime TABOR supporters, state treasurer Mike Coffman and University of Colorado economics professor Barry Poulson. Coffman and Poulson have proposed diverting a portion of future surplus revenues to a "rainy day fund," a reserve that could be used in future budget crunches. Bruce says he's in favor of such a fund, but he argues that it should come out of the state's general budget rather than be drawn from surpluses that would otherwise be refunded.

Bruce met with Poulson and Coffman recently to share his views on their proposal. He was not encouraging.

"It's a conglomeration of dumb ideas, a mishmash of economic gimmicks to respond to abuses by the legislature," he says. "But the cost is going to be borne by the taxpayer. Everybody wants to figure out how to spend the tax refund. Heaven forbid it should go back to the people who are overtaxed."

A little $850 million deficit, about 6 percent of the total state budget, doesn't have to entail "painful" measures, he adds. "If they'd just do the cuts, people would realize there is no pain. Do you remember when the federal government was shut down in 1995? Did that ruin your life? Nobody missed them."

Last week, lawmakers made cuts across several agencies' budgets to cover much of the deficit. But if the legislature wants additional ideas about where to swing the ax, Bruce is their man. Sawing into meat, gravy and onion rings, he reviews a list of targets: Higher education. Social programs. Duplicate services, or those that can be done better by the private sector.