Court fight over bag fee could change state finance

Some of the most consequential fights over Colorado government finance in the coming years won’t happen at the state legislature or at the ballot box, but in a courtroom, where fiscal conservatives and business groups are contesting government fees of as little as 20 cents.

In Aspen, a taxpayer advocacy group is fighting a 20-cent surcharge on grocery bags in a lawsuit that’s now gone all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court.

At the state government level, a small business coalition is arguing that the secretary of state’s office for decades has been illegally using business filing fees to finance a slew of unrelated government services.

And — perhaps most significantly — the TABOR Foundation is challenging the constitutionality of a $264 million hospital fee that generates another $264 million in matching funds from the federal government to pay for uncompensated care.

At issue in each of these cases is a seemingly simple question: What’s the difference between a tax and a fee?

But no matter how small some of the contested fees are, the answer could have wide-ranging consequences for taxpayers and virtually every level of Colorado government.

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