Liberal critics of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a 1992 constitutional amendment that placed a wide range of fiscal constraints on state and local governments in Colorado, won a major victory on Monday, June 17, when the state's Supreme Court ruled that a measure to repeal the amendment can move forward. But don’t expect a full TABOR repeal to be headed to the ballot just yet.
“This is a really important addition to the options we can consider,” says Carol Hedges, director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute and one of the sponsors of the repeal proposal. “The initiative process is a really valuable tool, but it also has limitations, because it’s challenging to get information and data about how various proposals will affect various communities. That’s not easy.”
TABOR opponents have been eyeing the 2020 ballot for their next attempt at scaling back the controversial amendment, something that Colorado voters have tried repeatedly in the 27 years since its passage. It’s unclear exactly how far that initiative will go, but for now, at least, a full repeal doesn’t seem likely.
“What’s next is to do as much community outreach as we possibly can, with as many different communities from across the state,” Hedges says. “We will be talking to folks about the level of public investments that we make, and what the rules are that keep our elected officials from doing what we want them to do. And we’re going to get a lot of input, and hopefully have something on the ballot in 2020 that gives voters an opportunity to decide whether it’s a step in the right direction.”
Previous attempts at fully repealing TABOR through the initiative process have been judged by elections officials and state courts to violate the “single subject” rule for ballot proposals, a constitutional requirement approved by voters two years after TABOR’s passage. Monday’s Supreme Court ruling overturned those decisions, clearing the way for Initiative 3, a simple, one-sentence TABOR repeal measure filed by Hedges earlier this year.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Hedges. “Saying that you couldn’t change this important part of the constitution without having sixteen or seventeen separate measures to do that — that never made any sense to me, in terms of what we were trying to do to give voters an important decision-making role in our communities and our economy.”
The reaction to the ruling offers a preview of where the fight over TABOR could be headed over the next eighteen months, with a coalition of liberal policy experts and interest groups pushing for reform, and deep-pocketed conservative outfits lined up to oppose them.
“Whether it’s a full repeal of TABOR or a wholesale modernization of our tax system, we need to start considering other tools in our toolbox and stop limiting ourselves with conventional wisdoms,” said the Bell Policy Center’s Scott Wasserman in a statement on Monday. “The court's historic ruling offers a chance for us to think differently for the better of our state and those in it.”
“Voting on tax increases and controlling the size of government is extremely popular among Coloradans across the board,” Michael Fields, director of conservative group Colorado Rising Action, said in another statement. “We’ll take on this and any other fight in which groups of activists try to destroy the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.”
For many Coloradans, TABOR is synonymous with its requirement that any and all tax increases be approved by popular referendum, a one-of-a-kind policy that has severely restricted Colorado lawmakers’ ability to raise new revenue since its passage. But as Hedges and other critics have long pointed out, TABOR includes much more than the voting provision, from a prohibition on progressive tax rates to what opponents say is a far too restrictive requirement for how tax initiatives must be worded on the ballot.
Later this year, Coloradans will get the chance to vote on another of TABOR’s lesser-known provisions. Proposition CC, referred to the 2019 ballot by Democrats in the Colorado Legislature, will ask voters to eliminate statewide revenue caps, allowing the state to keep excess tax revenue rather than refunding it, as TABOR currently requires. Voters in dozens of municipalities and school districts across the state have already approved similar ballot questions, known as “de-Brucing” measures, in reference to controversial anti-tax activist and TABOR architect Douglas Bruce.
“It makes us an outlier in tax policy,” Hedges says of the revenue cap. “Most states recognize that you have good times and bad times, and in bad times you have to tighten your belt, so you make some cuts and contract — but when good times come, then you fill in the things that you cut and save money for bad times. But TABOR doesn’t allow us to do that.”
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Though it has already been gradually weakened by Colorado voters over the years, TABOR has continued to be a target for liberals who blame its constraints for the state's underfunded public services; it faced renewed scrutiny earlier this year during a three-day strike by Denver teachers over low pay. Colorado ranks 46th out of 50 states in teacher pay and 42nd in per-student education spending, according to data from the National Education Association.
“There’s a lot of frustration with elected officials because people can’t figure out why our schools aren’t better funded, our roads aren’t better funded, etc.,” Hedges says. “Well, part of it is that we’ve taken away the ability to make complex decisions about how to raise and spend public dollars.”
Regardless of the outcome of Proposition CC in November, Hedges and other opponents plan to continue their efforts to reverse TABOR's impacts — in 2020 and beyond.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” she says. “There’s a lot of people from across the state of Colorado who have been trying to make our system of public investment — both how we raise money and how we spend it — work better on behalf of diverse communities all across the state. That work will continue.”