Mike Foote: TABOR cuts to schools and roads are coming
A 24-year-old constitutional amendment championed by a discredited anti-government crusader and convicted tax evader is now having profound effects on how your state legislators are budgeting for important areas like schools and roads. The 1992 TABOR amendment to the Colorado Constitution may require us to cut from those already under-funded areas despite your clear directions to us otherwise.
Let me explain this unfortunate situation a little further: TABOR requires the state to return tax revenues if those revenues exceed an amount based upon an arbitrary equation. When the economy does well, the state must return money it could otherwise use to invest in the future. The condition of our under-funded schools and clogged roads account for nothing in the cold calculus of TABOR’s allowed revenue formula.
Colorado’s schools and roads suffered greatly when the economy and tax revenues crashed during the last recession. Now that our economy is improving and revenue has increased, the state cannot invest in those necessary areas. Tax money comes in, and then the state turns around and sends some of it back out. Meanwhile, public school systems are hurting and roads are crumbling.
When I walk neighborhoods, go to meetings, and talk to constituents in my eastern Boulder County district, I almost always hear concerns about our schools and roads. I listen and try to assure them that I will do my best to make sure the state legislature invests in those important priorities. But the reality is those investments will not happen when we return $156 million, as we will this year.
There are solutions to this dilemma. A short-term answer is for the state legislature to pass a bill exempting a fee paid by hospitals from the TABOR-mandated revenue cap. This fix would treat this obscure fee separately from TABOR revenue limits, just as we do with college tuition payments or state lottery receipts. I and a majority of the House of Representatives supported that bill last year, but it failed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Even if some opponents of this approach change their minds this year and allow the measure to pass, it would only be a short-term fix. A longer-term fix will have to come from the ballot box. Because TABOR is a constitutional amendment, it can be changed only by a majority vote of the people.
Voters approved TABOR in 1992 by a 52-48 percent margin because proponents of the amendment argued that it would allow Coloradans to vote on tax increases (even though popular votes on taxes occurred well before TABOR). Slipped into TABOR, though, were a number of devices designed to suffocate government. One of those devices was the revenue cap that we are dealing with today.
It is my hope we’ll see citizen-led ballot measures this fall to deal with this issue. TABOR is a good solution for those who believe we should cut spending no matter the consequences. But for those who believe Colorado’s state government should provide roads and schools and other services at levels adequate to support our future prosperity, TABOR is cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Mike Foote is a Democrat state representative from House District 12, which includes Louisville, Lafayette and part of Longmont. He lives in Lafayette.