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.
"People are looking for a line item to cut that says 'Waste, Fraud & Abuse,'" he notes. "It doesn't exist. But I have devoted my life to doing what I can to dismantle the welfare state. That's the diuretic elephant at the tea party that nobody wants to mention. We're spending something like $650 million on higher education, and we're subsidizing tuition so the guy back there working in the bakery" -- his fork, suspended, aims at an unsuspecting kitchen worker -- "has to pay higher taxes so that some spoiled kid from Boulder gets to go to CU for six or seven years and never has to graduate. That's immoral to me. I would concede that there is some social benefit to having people get a basic education, but not for some fast-food worker subsidizing a guy going for his doctoral degree."
Why not lay off handsomely paid professors and have the rest teach more and do less research? (Tenure, anyone?) Why not close satellite campuses and sell them to private enterprise, particularly since property sales are exempt from the TABOR revenue restrictions? "Why shouldn't higher education be treated as a commodity?" Bruce asks. "Even the educrats now treat it as an economic calculation that allows you to pursue future higher earnings. So why should the government have a monopoly on it?"
If education is considered too sacred, Bruce has other suggestions. Although advocates for the mentally ill have expressed outrage over how current and impending cuts will affect that vulnerable population, Bruce doesn't share their concern.
"I have this affliction, which is called seeing things the way they really are," he sighs. "They said if we cut the welfare rolls, we'd have people dying in the street. Well, they cut the rolls by half. But have they laid off half the caseworkers? Is the welfare budget half of what it was before? Of course not. If people didn't think the government was going to take care of things, then they'd give more money to charity.
"It's not the job of the guy behind the counter there" -- again with the fork -- "to pay the hospital bills of some chronic drunk lying in the gutter on Larimer Street. Private charity is available, and it's able to distinguish between the malingerers, the troublemakers and those who really need a hand up. Some people just want to milk the system."
Years ago, when he was a prosecutor in California, Bruce sponsored a family of Vietnamese refugees. They stayed in his house, he says, until they could afford an apartment. Within a few weeks, they had a car and jobs. As a landlord, though, he's tangled with troublemakers, too.
"I deal with tenants who are milking every conceivable system," he says. "Do you know how many people in Pueblo are on disability? It's unbelievable. And many of them are perfectly able-bodied people. Yet you can't find people in Pueblo to do yard work."
Bruce knows his ideas don't digest well, even among some fellow conservatives. He's been vilified as greedy, selfish, lacking in compassion. But he says it's the government that's greedy; all he's trying to do is keep the taxpayer from getting fleeced.
"My compassion is for the truck driver, the waitress, the janitor, the housepainter -- except for [former House speaker] Doug Dean," he says. "Government thinks it should be immune from the economic cycle. The whole point of TABOR is it should match the economic cycle and not expand when the private sector is contracting, because then it becomes a bigger part of the pie."
Big bail-out programs, from the New Deal to the Great Society, are a step down the road to some kind of collectivism, he says.
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But wait. What about Governor Owens's economic-stimulus package -- $19 million for economic development grants and promotion of tourism and agriculture -- that received such a thunderous reception during his State of the State address?
Bruce chews this one over carefully. "It's clearly redistribution of wealth," he says. "It's taking money from our waitress to give it to some guy who owns a string of motels. Why shouldn't that business pay for its own advertising? I don't care if it's corporate welfare or welfare queens. Redistribution from the poor to the rich or from the rich to the poor is still stealing."
He munches on a cookie. "They're whining about a one-year decline in revenue, and I don't think that's too bad," he says. "But the government's attitude toward the taxpayer is, 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable.'"
Come deficit or dessert, Douglas Bruce is determined to get his.