Two new bills introduced in the Colorado legislature represent the latest efforts to gut the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, an amendment to the state constitution approved by voters in 1992. And Douglas Bruce, the former legislator who created the amendment and has spent more than 26 years since then defending it against all comers, has extraordinarily sharp words — and a lot of them — for those making the attempt.
"These people are fanatics," Bruce says. "I'm waiting for them to tie TABOR to Russian collusion. They think the solution to all their problems is to steal all the money they can get and not even let people vote. They want us to vote to give up our right to vote. They think they can do that with a bill even though it's patently illegal — not that they care."
Colorado's treasury department offers an online primer about TABOR, noting that the measure "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."
KC Becker, the current speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, argues that this system has resulted in severe under-funding in a slew of important areas. As part of a statement supporting HB 19-1257 and HB 19-1258, the proposals in question, she posits that "the TABOR cap is an antiquated fiscal policy that has severely limited Colorado’s ability to invest in basic functions of government — from public schools to transportation and health care. It’s made our economy easier to bust when recessions hit and harder to boom when they end."
The bills Becker is sponsoring in conjunction with senators Kevin Priola and Lois Court work in tandem. The first would approve the placement of a measure on the November 2019 Colorado ballot asking voters to "authorize the state to annually retain and spend all state revenues in excess of the TABOR cap." Approval would trigger the second proposition, which designates equal portions of the revenue to be spent on public schools, higher education and roads, bridges and transit, respectively.
The name of TABOR's dad isn't specifically mentioned in the announcement. However, it's transformed into a verb amid a section maintaining that "the vast majority of local governments and school districts have already 'debruced,' meaning they've received voter approval to retain all or a portion of the revenue over the TABOR cap. Of the state's 272 municipalities, 230 municipalities have obtained voter approval to retain and spend all or a portion of excess revenue collected. Of the state's 64 counties, 51 counties have obtained voter approval to retain and spend all excess revenue. All but four of the 178 school districts in Colorado have obtained voter approval to retain and spend excess revenue."
Bruce doesn't refute these numbers, but he argues that the citizens of Colorado benefit from TABOR's voting requirement, which gives them the right to turn down tax increases — and they took advantage in 2018, when propositions 109 and 110, which would have raised funds for transportation projects, and Amendment 73, about school funding, were spanked hard on election day.
"Those were three clear-cut rejections," Bruce points out. "And now they're trying to trick people once again. It's pathetic."
The new legislation is hardly the first to take on TABOR since its passage. Bruce searched the Colorado General Assembly's web page devoted to bills, resolutions and memorials and got a total of 1,473 hits, including 345 that mentioned TABOR during the current session alone. "This has been going on as background clutter and noise for over a quarter-century," he grouses.
Arguably the most prominent of the previous efforts, and the most successful, was 2005's voter-approved Referendum C, which let the state "spend all revenue subject to TABOR for five years," through fiscal year 2009-’10. Basically, Bruce says, "they promised a five-year timeout — and that was fourteen years ago. Their idea of temporary is like a temporary government program. Which is forever."
As such, Bruce is the opposite of surprised that another effort to incapacitate TABOR has been launched. "It's beyond having a reaction of being depressed about what these clowns do," he confirms, "and the Republicans don't help things much. They just sort of wring their hands and say no, but they've proven themselves to be ineffective — and the Democrats have proven themselves to be laughable."
On that point, Bruce emphasizes that "a statute cannot change the constitution. That's something even the average waitress or truck driver can understand. The constitution isn't just a plaything of these people, but they think that way. They even seem to think they can change the Electoral College in the federal constitution with a state bill or resolution" — a reference to recently passed legislation calling for Colorado to award the state's electoral votes to the winner of the overall popular vote. "These people are lunatics."
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As for the argument that TABOR has undermined Colorado schools, Bruce notes that the amount of property-tax revenue collected by such institutions in the state has gone from $1.4 billion in 1993 to $4.6 billion in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available. "It's more than tripled, so how can they say TABOR has crippled schools?" he asks. "And state revenue has gone from under $10 billion when TABOR was approved, and now it's approximately $33 billion — and they're still saying that's not enough."
With Democrats wielding power in both houses of the Colorado legislature and fellow Dem Jared Polis serving as governor, Bruce sees passage of the Becker bills as a strong possibility. If that happens, he hopes Colorado voters will respond just as they did when judging propositions 109 and 110 and Amendment 73.
As for him, he says, "I'm going to treat these bills like what gets stuck under my shoe when I walk in City Park. All you've got to do is scrape it off and get back to your life."
HB 19-1257 and HB 19-1258 will have their first hearing before the House finance committee at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, April 1, in the Old State Library.