Douglas Bruce sees himself as perpetually under attack. And right now, that view can't be dismissed as mere paranoia.
In 1992, Bruce fathered the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, better known as TABOR, which calls for voter approval of tax increases and plenty more. In the quarter-century-plus since Coloradans approved the measure, critics of the amendment, which is enshrined in the Colorado Constitution, have made multiple attempts to kill or neuter it, and they'll have at least one and probably two more chances to do so over the next two years.
Coming this November is Proposition CC, a measure that would allow the state to spend excess revenue on education and transportation projects rather than refunding it to taxpayers, as TABOR mandates. And whether CC is successful or not, the November 2020 ballot could include a full-scale Taxpayer's Bill of Rights repeal attempt, thanks to a ruling earlier this month by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Bruce reacts to these developments with the white-hot fury that he keeps carefully contained but immediately accesses at any given moment. He takes special umbrage with opponents' use of the term "de-Bruce" to describe how they want to rid state laws of his nefarious influence. He thinks this coinage is proof that "they want to make me into a pariah. They've framed me" — he's referring to his 2011 indictment for tax evasion — "and they've done everything they possibly can short of capital punishment. I'm sure they're going to continue to do it, too. The hatred in the Colorado Legislature for TABOR and me is not Trump Derangement Syndrome. In Colorado, it's Bruce Derangement Syndrome."
The symptoms of this condition became apparent to Bruce in March, when officials led by Speaker of the House KC Becker introduced House Bill 1257. The proposal called for a ballot proposition "concerning authority for the state to keep and spend all of the revenue in excess of the constitutional limitation on state fiscal year spending beginning with the 2019-20 fiscal year in order to provide funding for public schools, higher education, and roads, bridges and transit."
While the measure doesn't specifically mention TABOR, it's the clear target, as evidenced by a primer about the amendment provided by Colorado's treasury department. The office points out that the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights "restricts revenues for all levels of government (state, local and schools). Under TABOR, state and local governments cannot raise tax rates without voter approval and cannot spend revenues collected under existing tax rates if revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth without voter approval."
The TABOR provision requiring that citizens offer a thumbs-up before taxes can be boosted is the main reason that two highway measures, Proposition 109 and Proposition 110, and Amendment 73, which would have substantially augmented funding for education, were placed before voters in November 2018. All three fell short, suffering the same fate as many other statewide initiatives calling for tax increases since TABOR took effect. Over and over again, Colorado voters have been reluctant to charge themselves more on a state level, although local municipalities have often enjoyed their residents' okay.
Following the announcement of HB 1257, Bruce vigorously defended his creation and called those trying to undermine it "lunatics." But it passed the Colorado General Assembly largely on a party-line vote, with Democrats winning the day, and last month, it was officially rebranded as Proposition CC.
Since then, many of Bruce's fellow Republicans have spoken out on behalf of TABOR by way of an organization dubbed No on CC. Former Colorado treasurer and 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee Walker Stapleton and 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler are among the co-chairs of the outfit, whose advisory board includes former governor Bill Owens, ex-U.S. senator Hank Brown and Representative Ken Buck.
Such advocacy has earned Bruce's grudging gratitude, but it hasn't softened his rough edges. "Anybody who wants to oppose CC is fine with me," he notes. "I want everybody to vote no. Whether I want to have dinner with them is another matter."
This comment resonates in the context of perhaps the unlikeliest of all TABOR defenders: Governor Jared Polis.
Not that Polis loves TABOR as a whole — but in an interview with Colorado Public Radio, he rejected a blanket repeal. While he expressed antipathy for TABOR's "complex formulas," which "effectively don't allow the state to be able to invest with receipts that it gets," Polis voiced strong support for "the right of voters to be able to vote on tax increases."
Of course, the voters don't know what language might be at the heart of a TABOR repeal proposal, because none has yet been written. However, the Colorado Supreme Court has opened the door to this possibility. TABOR is a multifarious piece of legislation that was passed before Colorado instituted a directive that requires ballot questions to address a single subject that can be clearly expressed in its title. Under these standards, a repeal would presumably be impossible unless it involved several propositions — which is why the state Title Board rejected a proposal by the Colorado Fiscal Institute's Carol Hedges to ax it with just one. But the Supreme Court overruled the board, thereby allowing Hedges to move forward.
This "ridiculous, corrupt" decision trashes "23 years of precedent," Bruce fumes, and Polis's words offer him no succor. He calls the governor's mixed views regarding TABOR "a politician's evasion, an attempt to straddle," especially given that Polis has said he agrees in principle with Proposition CC.
For Bruce, defeating Proposition CC is his current focus, and his efforts to help make that happen are encapsulated on the site VoteNoCC.com, which he sees as a better web address than the one he expects the No on CC crew to use, "because if you put it all together, theirs looks like 'noon CC,' and what does that mean?" Among the documents he highlights is a collection of bullet points titled "14 Reasons to Oppose Unlimited State Spending."
Below, he elaborates on six of them.
"THEY'RE ASKING US TO VOTE TO GIVE UP OUR VOTE"
In Bruce's view, Proposition CC amounts to a new tax over which Colorado voters will have no say. To him, this notion is "such an effrontery, such an outrage — such audacity. They have absolutely no shame about that. Think about the inconsistency of asking people to vote and then saying, 'We want you to vote to give up your right to vote.'"
Something similar happened back in 2005 by way of voter-approved Referendum C, which allowed the state to spend all revenue subject to TABOR through fiscal year 2009-’10. But what Bruce says was pitched as a "five-year timeout" was "fourteen years ago."
This time around, he stresses, there's no expiration date to ignore — which is why he characterizes "double C" as "C on steroids... . You're giving up your right to vote forever. It's not a one-year waiver, which TABOR contemplates. It's forever, and forever is a long time."
Surrendering this option strikes Bruce as patently absurd. "If you don't want to vote, stay home," he advises. "Hide under the bed if you're afraid of life and making choices. But the people who do are voting for everybody else to give up their right to vote, too. Our Founding Fathers pledged their life and their sacred honor, offering to give up their lives for posterity to protect this right — and we are their posterity. They did it for us, and we have a moral duty to protect the freedom of our posterity twenty years, fifty years, 200 years from now. So that's one cosmic argument about why this is a profoundly bad idea."
By the way, state economists now believe that strong revenues in Colorado could trigger the first TABOR refund since 2015, with an estimated $1.3 billion possibly being returned to taxpayers over the next three years. Bruce sees this news as the state's admission that Proposition CC backers are eager to take more than a ten-figure sum from hardworking Coloradans.
"THEY WANT UNLIMITED GOVERNMENT SPENDING"
According to Bruce, "government spending is either limited or unlimited. It's a binary choice, as people like to say. So they have to ask themselves before they pick up their ballot if they believe in unlimited government spending forever. And that question should answer itself."
If voters are asked about this prospect, Bruce believes that "most of them are going to say there should be some limits on government spending. But [the proponents of the bill and ballot measure] don't want you to think about that."
"THEY'RE LYING TO US"
As noted above, Bruce sees the authorization to let the state government keep tax money that would be returned to Coloradans under TABOR's provisions to be a de facto tax — which is why he's so offended by the measure's title language.
It reads: "Without raising taxes and to better fund public schools, higher education, and roads, bridges, and transit, within a balanced budget, may the state keep and spend all the revenue it annually collects after June 30, 2019, but is not currently allowed to keep and spend under Colorado law, with an annual independent audit to show how the retained revenues are spent?"
"They begin the title 'Without raising taxes,' and that's a lie," Bruce argues. "These people are chronic liars. They're liars, thieves, scoundrels and worse. If you give up your right to get a tax refund forever, at the end of every year, you pay more taxes than if you'd gotten a tax refund. Your net tax bill would be higher. So that's another lie, and another reason to vote against it."
"THEY SAY, 'IT'S FOR THE CHILDREN,' WHICH IS THEIR USUAL SCAM"
Legislators and supporters of House Bill 1257, Proposition CC's precursor, frequently brought up the harm they believe has been done to kids by TABOR. In her April 1 testimony in favor of the measure, Kelly Causey, president and CEO of the Colorado Children's Campaign, said, "We would like to thank the sponsors for bringing forward these proposals to help address the ongoing under-investment in Colorado's children and families."
To Bruce, such assertions require translation.
"When Democrats say, 'It's for the children,' that means it's for the teachers' union," he says. "Not one dollar is going to go to the children — so that's another lie. No child is going to get one dollar in his pocket."
Of course, better elementary and secondary schools would presumably help Colorado children in ways that can't be deposited in their college fund. But that's not how Bruce sees it. He maintains that "75 percent of money spent on schools is for salaries — which means it's going to a $10,000 pay raise for some deputy superintendent."
"YOU CAN'T NULLIFY A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT WITH A STATUTE"
TABOR is indeed in the Colorado Constitution, while the ballot measure won't be, even if it's blessed by voters. Bruce sees that as improper — and he felt the same way about 2005's Referendum C, whose ticking clock helped motivate Proposition CC, in his view.
"They've had their five-year timeout for fourteen years," he asserts. "But that's not good enough for them. Their shriveled little raisin of a conscience is bothering them, so they want to make it official forever, so they don't feel bad about breaking their five-year promise. But that's why we put TABOR in the constitution, and why they hate it — because they haven't been able to remove it. So they've had to use all these illegal devices and ridiculous diversions."
By the way, legal challenges to Referendum C went nowhere.
"THEY'RE DISMANTLING TABOR ONE PARAGRAPH AT A TIME BY PARTISAN VOTE"
Republican Senator Kevin Priola was a co-sponsor of HB 19-1257, and one other GOP member of the state Senate also voted in favor of it: Bob Rankin, who was appointed in January to fill the seat previously held by embattled Randy Baumgardner, who resigned the previous month. But Bruce still sees the proposal as a Democratic plot.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"They're calling it bipartisan," he notes, "when the real issue is that it's us versus them."
In Bruce's opinion, "us" doesn't just refer to Republicans. The word embraces Coloradans as a whole, a population he feels will be ripped off by the measure if it passes.
The failure of Proposition 109, Proposition 110 and Amendment 73 suggests that Proposition CC could be in for tough sledding should opponents successfully manage to portray it as a tax in the face of what will undoubtedly be a well-financed effort to push it over the finish line. "I'm hesitant to predict, because I don't want people to think, 'Doug Bruce says it's going to lose,' and get complacent," Doug Bruce says. "They're going to have to work to stop this.
"The simple rule to remember is to vote no in No-vember. That's why we have elections in November — so people can remember to vote no."