If you’re a Colorado taxpayer, you better get a firm grip on your wallet. Once again, the forces of unlimited government and the folks who know how to spend your money better than you do are after it. The dragon they want to slay for the umpteenth time is commonly known as TABOR, The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
This was an amendment added to the state constitution via a ballot question by a direct vote of the people in the general election of 1992. It limits spending by all levels of government under a formula that considers population growth and inflation. It also requires approval by the voters for tax increases.
10th Circuit reverses TABOR ruling, says lawsuit can challenge Colorado law’s constitutionality
Federal judge previously had found lawsuit’s plaintiffs lacked standing to sue
PUBLISHED: July 22, 2019 at 3:18 pm | UPDATED: July 22, 2019 at 5:43 pm
A sidelined legal challenge to the constitutionality of Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights is back on again, following a decision by a federal appeals court Monday that found some plaintiffs in the case have a right to sue.
“We have been dealing for eight years with threshold procedural issues,” said David Skaggs, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Now I hope we will be heading back to district court to finally get to the merits.”
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision reverses a 2017 ruling by a federal judge in Denver who said the plaintiffs lacked what’s called standing — meaning they could show they would be subject to actual or threatened damages — and therefore couldn’t sue.
The lawsuit itself dates to 2011 when Sen. Andy Kerr and House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst challenged TABOR in federal court.
They argued that giving the final say on all tax increases to voters — as TABOR mandated after its approval by Colorado voters in 1992 — violated the Guarantee Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which is a line in Article IV, Section 4 that promised every state a republican form of government. TABOR, they argued, transformed the state into a direct democracy.
The Colorado Title Board on Wednesday approved key language for a possible 2020 ballot initiative that would repeal a highly consequential part of the state constitution.
But which part, exactly? If you ask repeal proponents, it’s Article X, Section 20. If you ask repeal opponents, it’s the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. How the ballot question is presented to voters is just the latest high-stakes skirmish in a long war over TABOR, a controversial constitutional amendment passed in 1992 that’s limited government growth in the state.
Both sides presented arguments to the title board, a three-member panel with representatives from the Secretary of State’s office, the state Attorney General and the Office of Legislative Legal Services, that decides if ballot measures meet all requirements and how they should appear on the ballot.
The Full Story Behind TABOR: Read & Listen To The Taxman Podcast
The liberal-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute is backing the repeal effort, which won a significant victory at the Colorado State Supreme Court last month allowing it to inch closer to the 2020 ballot. Carol Hedges, the group’s executive director, said using the specific term, “Article X, Section 20,” is the most clear, neutral way possible to refer to the amendment.
Q&A with Penn Pfiffner | On standing up for freedom, and TABOR
The TABOR Foundation’s Penn Pfiffner addresses the Reagan Club of Colorado earlier this year. (Photo courtesy the TABOR Foundation)
Even if you don’t move in Penn Pfiffner’s center-right political circles, you’re probably familiar with his name as the media’s go-to guy for comment on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights whenever it comes up in the news. And it comes up a lot, of course.
The groundbreaking taxing and spending limits — venerated by some and vilified by others — have been stirring debate ever since being enacted into Colorado’s Constitution by voters in 1992. Better known by its acronym TABOR, the constitutional provision has prompted lawsuits, legislation and more ballot issues by wide-ranging interests hoping to elude or at least ease its restraints on state and local budgets.
The perennial back-and-forth over TABOR also spawned the TABOR Foundation, which, along with its advocacy counterpart the TABOR Committee, emerged with the help of Pfiffner and other resolute TABOR supporters to stand up for the policy.
Pfiffner, who served as a Republican state representative from Lakewood in the 1990s, has become as distinctive a voice for TABOR over the years as he has for the advocacy of limited government in general.
He expounds on both of those endeavors and more — as always, in his characteristically eloquent and respectful way — in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: Let’s start with a recent headline. The state Supreme Court ruled June 17 that a pending ballot proposal to repeal TABOR in its entirety may proceed — despite a constitutional “single-subject” stipulation on ballot issues that was long believed to have blocked precisely such an all-in-one-shot repeal.
In a public statement from the TABOR Foundation condemning the ruling, you said, “The court has become dangerously unmoored from the clear meaning of the state constitution.” The statement also said the court ”appears to take sides.”
Recap for us what was fundamentally at issue in the case before court — and why you feel the court missed the mark.
Penn Pfiffner: The recent direction of the Colorado courts on constitutional matters should trouble any citizen. Our American system relies on an honest judicial branch to impartially interpret the law. We have seen an absolutely consistent antipathy from the courts towards the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
It’s an understatement to say that the justices from trial level to the Colorado Supreme Court have appeared to argue backwards from predetermined outcomes. Some of the arguments appeared to me to be even juvenile, like an adolescent trying too hard to argue the impossible.
The central finding in the Bridge Enterprise case that the TABOR Foundation brought is an example. Years from now, I surmise historians of Colorado’s system will be amazed and disgusted that it became so partisan during these recent years. Good, experienced attorneys today are urging the TABOR Foundation not to bring any more constitutional issues to the judicial branch — it’s that futile, and all that we end up with is setting bad precedent. In the case you raise, the court explicitly threw out a generation of precedent. It’s as if they never opened the section on TABOR to read all the different pieces in this comprehensive constitutional measure.
A dissent from the bench pointed out that some activist could now substitute Colorado’s extensive “Bill of Rights” for “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (in a ballot proposal) and in one vote overturn all citizen protections. A leftist court looks ready to use its personal political views to put a thumb on the scales of justice.
- Chairs the board of directors for the TABOR Foundation and the TABOR Committee, since 2009. The two entities, respectively, educate and advocate on behalf of TABOR.
- Owner, Construction Economics LLC, since 1983; provides financial and managerial consulting to architects, engineers and contractors.
- Senior fellow in fiscal policy at the Denver-based Independence Institute, 2001-2014.
- Served as a Republican state representative from Jefferson County in the Colorado House, 1993-2001.
- Current board member and past president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers.
- Chaired “Too Taxing for Colorado,” an issue committee to defeat the unsuccessful Proposition 103 tax increase on the 2011 statewide ballot.
- Holds a master’s degree in finance from the University of Colorado Denver and bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science from CU Boulder.
CP: Give us your elevator speech on TABOR’s role, and value, in our state constitution.
PROPOSITION CC IS AN ATTACK ON THE TAXPAYER’S BILL OF RIGHTS
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.
These words from Sir Walter Scott’s 1808 poem, “Marmion,” appropriately describe Proposition CC, the Colorado November ballot question that would take away hardworking Coloradans tax refunds, FOREVER. From the opening three words, “Without raising taxes,” we are being deceived by the writers and proponents of this proposition. When taxpayer money is not refunded as outlined in the Constitutional Amendment, TABOR, The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the state is keeping more of our tax dollars, and therefore those tax dollars shall be defined as a tax increase. This statewide measure is asking voters to permanently give up tax refunds that are owed to us under The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. I am quite certain that if the federal government decided to keep all tax refunds for all of eternity there would be absolute chaos as we, the taxpayers, would refuse to believe that it is not a tax increase.
The deceit continues with the phrase “to better fund public schools, higher education, and roads, bridges, and transit.” There is no commitment to dedicating the “taxpayer refunds” to public schools, higher education, roads, bridges, and transit. There is no “shall” or “must” in this proposition. Instead, it is very open ended and does not allow the voters and taxpayers to know how the money will actually be spent, nor the percentages for each category.
Keep in mind that House Speaker K.C. Becker, one of the sponsors of the bill that produced Proposition CC, back in April during her discourse with Representative Susan Beckman in a House Finance Committee hearing, said, “As you know, Representative Beckman, one legislature can’t bind future legislators, so I don’t know what’s going to happen forevermore. And any change that is statutory, whether voters approve it or not, can always be changed by the legislature because the legislature always has the authority to change statutes.” These words from the Speaker of the House clearly states that there are no guarantees as to where the additional funds will go.
Prop CC, referred to the ballot by the 2019 Legislature, would gut the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Surveys show TABOR, passed by voters in 1992, is more popular than ever.
Taxpayers like TABOR because voters do not trust politicians on either side of the aisle. They are tired of legislators passing laws that counter their will, such as jobs-killing regulations of oil and gas that voters rejected on the ballot. They are tired of state officials acting broke while the economy generates mountains of surplus cash.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis Is Working On A New Plan To Block Tax Relief
Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) welcomed conservative economist Art Laffer to the state capitol in Denver today to help gin up Republican support for a potential deal intended to avert taxpayer refunds projected to be sent to Colorado taxpayers in the coming year, with Polis’ ultimate goal being the wounding of the nation’s strongest taxpayer protection measure so that it remains in effect in name only, not in practice.
Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), approved by voters in 1992 as an amendment to the state constitution, is the sturdiest taxpayer safeguard in the nation. Under TABOR, state revenue cannot grow faster than the combined rate of population growth and inflation.
Any state revenue collected in excess of the TABOR cap must be refunded to taxpayers. Thanks to healthy state revenue collections coming in above the cap allowed by Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, current projections show the state will have to refund roughly $500 million to Colorado taxpayers next year. That won’t happen if Proposition CC, a measure ending TABOR refunds, is rejected by Colorado voters this November.