Effort underway to address Colorado’s ‘fiscal thicket,’ undo voter referendums

DENVER – There’s a veritable graveyard in Colorado of failed constitutional reform movements.

Blue ribbon panels, legislative committees, summits and countless academic studies have been mulled up over the years to address the fact that Colorado voters have frequently and easily petitioned and changed the state constitution.

But a new group – Building a Better Colorado – is launching a 30-stop listening tour across the state to find out what Coloradans want to do about the growing constitutional conundrum.

Not everything is on the table, but just about.

The group is backed by Colorado businessman Dan Ritchie, who has led two Colorado universities and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He’s attracted 16 political co-chairs split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. The first of the meetings (what organizers called a dress rehearsal) kicked off this weekend in Grand Junction at the Club 20 meeting.

“It’s unlike anything that has been done before,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for the group with Onsight Public Affairs. “We want to go out, talk to Coloradans, present them with the challenges as we see them and then figure out if we can come up with solutions.”

Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, said he’s seen similar efforts come and go.

“We’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it for two decades,” Caldara said. “This is another so-called ‘process,’ and by the end of the process the conclusion will be that citizens will be less empowered and government will be more empowered.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican who was the state attorney general for 10 years, said the effort truly is open ended.

“Dan Ritchie is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met and Dan’s motives are pure,” Suthers said. “He’s willing to invest some of his money in a real serious discussion, and it’s going to be a discussion about what are the issues and what might have popular support to make some changes.”

The group has four main areas of concern: term limits, the fiscal thicket (TABOR and Amendment 23), election reform, and the ballot initiative process.

While the group is setting a broad agenda, much of the focus will be on the lightning rod issue that is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Colorado voters passed TABOR in 1992, amending the state constitution to prohibit tax increases at the state and local levels without voter approval.

The issue of TABOR tends to come down to a visceral Republican-versus-Democrat or anti-tax-versus-big government debate.

Suthers said he doubts there will be real change with regard to TABOR because the people have bought into the idea that voters should have a say in all tax increases.

“That’s not going anyplace,” he said.

But TABOR also required state and local governments to refund taxes when the government has too much revenue.

That’s put pressure on the state budget.

“We have one of the strongest economies in the nation,” said Henry Sobanet, director of the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting. “But if we have to budget on the lower forecast it’s going to feel like a recession.”

Sobanet is volunteering his time to help Building a Better Colorado explain what Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office has termed Colorado’s fiscal thicket.

The state is projected to have to return about $76 million to taxpayers for fiscal year 2015-16 because revenues will exceed the TABOR cap. That will leave a budget increase of about $201 million (according to the lower of two economic forecasts released in June).

But under the voter-approved Amendment 23, the state must put $337 million into K-12 education to keep up with inflation.

“The rules just don’t quite make sense together,” Sobanet said. “There’s a confluence of many things.”

He said it takes a solid 25 minutes to explain the intricacies of the state budget and why there’s a problem.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has his proposal on how to fix that problem – remove a large chunk of the money collected by hospitals as a user fee from the general fund so revenue no longer pushes the budget over the TABOR cap.

But Building a Better Colorado went into the tour without preconceived notions.

“Do nothing is on the table,” Hubbard said.

Caldara said he doesn’t buy the line that government needs more money.

“We’ve seen it before. We know the punch lines, and we’re not going to fall for it – just like we haven’t fallen for it before,” Caldara said.

The first and only real effort to repeal TABOR came in 1996 when Lois Court, a Democrat now serving in the state Legislature, tried to put an initiative on the ballot to roll back all of TABOR except for the required voter approval of taxes.

“This isn’t just the politician’s effort. This is being spearheaded by a lot of civic leaders, business leaders who are extremely concerned about the economic health of Colorado,” Court said. “Having a state government that limps along is not economically viable.”

But she knows perhaps better than anyone the challenges of changing TABOR.

Two years after voters approved TABOR, they approved an amendment requiring that future initiatives only deal with a single subject because TABOR itself dealt with many different subjects.

Court’s proposed amendment never made it to the ballot because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it violated the single-subject rule.

In 1998, a year after the first tax refunds were paid out under TABOR, voters were asked if the state could retain an additional $200 million above the cap. That proposal was shot down by 62 percent of the voters.

“Many of us knew that TABOR would ultimately cripple the state, and we have been frustrated by how long it has taken to be able to really address it,” Court said. “We have limped along and tried to bandage it here and bandage it there and we haven’t really fixed the problem.”

One of those bandages was Referendum C, which in 2005 put a five-year timeout on TABOR refunds and raised the cap for the years later after so the state could keep more money. It was a major political victory for the backers, including Hickenlooper, who at the time was the mayor of Denver and jumped out of an airplane for a TV commercial backing the referendum. The associated Referendum D dealing with the state’s ability to borrow money failed.

Leading up to that vote, there was a year and a half of intense pressure on the issue.

In 2003, meetings were held around the state, as influential stakeholders called the Colorado 100 and an interim legislative committee drafted several proposed bills that dealt with TABOR. None came to fruition.

The group behind Building a Better Colorado hopes to address the financial constraints put in place by TABOR and Amendment 23, but it’s just as dedicated to looking at term limits, election reform and the initiative petition process that brought about many of the things on that list.

In 1990 voters put in place term limits for state-level elected officials.

Court said Colorado is the only state the same process is used for the public to change the constitution or a statute. Suthers said that’s the crux of the problem.

“When a group of citizens want to change the law, they are going to go with a constitutional change because then the legislator won’t be able, when something goes wrong, to change it back,” Suthers said. “It’s way too easy to change the constitution in Colorado.”

After a decade heading the state’s legal department, Suthers said he knows the document better than most anyone. It’s more than 100 times thicker than the U.S. Constitution, he said, and contains provisions on nuclear detonations, trapping animals and legalizing marijuana.

“It has produced some bad governance because anyone with $250,000 can get an issue on the ballot. And if it’s something that sounds good or people don’t understand, it has a good chance of amending the constitution,” Suthers said.

Contact Megan Schrader: 286-0644

Twitter @CapitolSchrader

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