There’s good news and bad news for Coloradans as the annual state budget battle looms.
The good news, if you tend to focus on the revenue side of the ledger, is that the state is relatively flush with cash at the moment.
This helps explain the extra spring in the step one notices in legislators, lobbyists and special interests swarming the capitol, as they imagine all the wonderful things they can do with that windfall.
But this can also be bad news if you tend (as I do) to take the taxpayer’s point of view, since the resulting feeding frenzy could leave little thought to socking-away savings or returning a dividend to taxpayers as required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
You must remember TABOR, approved by voters back in the early 1990s? It’s been an invaluable ally to the state’s bill-payers ever since, which also makes it the bane of politicians and spending interests, who deeply resent the restraints it imposes on their ability to tax and spend at will.
Every budget season the debate stirs anew over whether TABOR has been good or bad for the state. And this year that debate has taken on a new urgency for a number of reasons.
First is the windfall just mentioned. If revenues continue to rebound, we could soon find ourselves in a situation in which excess revenues must be returned to taxpayers — something spenders likely will fight with every tool at hand.
Voters may agree to waive the refund, allowing the state to retain these surplus dollars, which TABOR permits. But taxpayers should tolerate no efforts on the part of the spenders to cook the books or dodge the voters.
Reason number two is the recent revelation, uncovered through an audit, that a number of state agencies have been hoarding dollars they should be returning to taxpayers under the law.
The total being withheld isn’t huge, coming to roughly $26 million, but it should be returned as part of the budget process by lowering the fees folks pay for certain state services.
There’s no excuse not to make these adjustments, especially since the state can’t credibly cry “poor” at this point.
The third reason TABOR is relevant again is a lawsuit wending its way through federal court aimed at nullifying the law on constitutional grounds.
The plaintiffs (mostly Democrats) just won a round in court when a panel of judges refused the state’s effort to toss their complaint.
The question of TABOR’s constitutionality wasn’t at issue, and that’s still a long way from being settled. But what to do next is now in the hands of the governor and attorney general, who should be urged to appeal and fight on given the state’s strong interest in seeing the will of voters upheld.
Much of the court battle may be beyond the control of average citizens – which is just where those hoping to kill this still-popular law want it — but taxpayers should be alert to any signs that the governor and attorney general are putting a less-than-best effort behind TABOR defense.
Let’s be frank about it: It’s probably unrealistic to expect much spending restraint from legislators this budget cycle, given the political realities of one party rule. The precarious majority that Democrats hold might even prompt a worse-than-normal spending splurge, as they attempt to maximize spending while they still can.
But what we should be asking fiscally-responsible legislators to do is to pull back on the reins, wherever they can, and redouble their efforts to protect and comply with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which is one big reason why Colorado isn’t the fiscal basket case it might otherwise be.
A show of pro-TABOR solidarity now can’t influence the outcome in federal court. But it can make a big difference in the court of public opinion, where the effort to undermine, circumvent and undo this crucial taxpayer protection is a constant threat.
Dustin Zvonek is the state director of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org