A month before his second term, Gov. John Hickenlooper is painting a bleak picture of Colorado’s future budget situation, even as he touts the state’s improving economic fortunes.
“We are going to have real difficult challenges in terms of how we address pretty much any basic infrastructure (spending need): transportation, K-12 education, higher education, healthcare,” he told the Denver Forum at a luncheon Tuesday. “Some of the things we’ve taken for granted and counted on in terms of our quality of life, we probably won’t be able to continue to afford.”
The reason for the strife, as the Democrat made clear, is the state’s constitutional spending limit known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. It’s politically volatile to point the finger at TABOR and Hickenlooper sought to walk a fine line as he raised the stakes.
Next year, Colorado lawmakers are anticipating budgeting taxpayer refunds because the state’s revenues are exceeding the inflation-plus-population-growth-cap for the first time in 15 years.
Unless lawmakers seek to keep the money (which is an idea being floated at the Capitol), the refunds will go out the door even as the state struggles to meet its constitutional requirement to fund education under what is known as Amendment 23. The state is short $900 million on education funding, according to analysts.
“Amendment 23 requires us to spend more. TABOR requires us to spend less. It really is a Gordian knot,” he said.
Hickenlooper expects this to come to a head two years from now, when refunds are expected to continue and grow.
“It’s not a question of whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat, it’s going to have to be a community decision on how do we address these challenges,” he added.
None of this is to say Hickenlooper supports changes to TABOR to ease the money flow. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “Just for the record, I like TABOR.”
“I’m not saying we should get rid of TABOR,” he continued. “I think people should have the right to vote. But they need to have the facts. Inflation plus population growth doesn’t solve all the fiscal challenges we need.”
In an interview after the event, Hickenlooper also made clear he doesn’t support asking voters to allow the state to keep the TABOR refund money. He endorsed refunds in his election-eve budget proposal.
“My job, my focus, right now is to make sure everybody understands that in two years we are going to have real difficult decisions,” he said.
The stakes, Hickenlooper told the well-heeled group at the private Denver Athletic Club, are clear. “In a funny way, we know already we will have to make cuts throughout the state bureaucracy. That the things that we’ve been trying to rectify, things like reduce waiting lines, treat the taxpayer as a (consumer), … that we will have to take steps backwards. In other words, that waiting times will go up, we will have a hard time delivering a lot of the basic good government that we worked so hard these last four years to create.
“In many ways,” he continued, “for some people it’s going to feel more like a recession unless we figure out some way to balance out these competing needs.”
What’s ahead, he said is a return to “core essential (government) programs and begin trimming every place we can.”
Despite the grim portrait that sobered the room, Hickenlooper is trying to remain optimistic about what he faces in his second term.
“I’m not trying to be a doomsday,” he said, “because I do think we can do this right and come out of this. If we give people the real facts, we can come out stronger and better. But it’s going to take a lot of work.
“We are going to have to steel ourselves,” he added.