Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Colorado Paradox,” the fact that our state is one of the most educated in the country – but mainly because educated people from elsewhere move here.
Have you, though, heard of the “Colorado Conundrum”?
This is a situation wherein Colorado, a state with one of the fastest-growing economies in the country and among the lowest unemployment rates, will still find itself unable to restore funding to K-12 education and colleges cut during the Great Recession or fix its crumbling roads. It’s a situation wherein state revenues will see a gangbusters resurgence, but the state will simply have to hand back the money to taxpayers rather than being able to give back to taxpayers the services they enjoyed before the recession.
In short, despite having plenty of water, we’ll be turning off the firehose while the house is still in flames.
If you haven’t guessed, the culprit here is TABOR, which imposes a revenue cap on the state budget mindlessly linked to a consumer price index and population growth, not taking into account whether the state’s costs — like higher education and healthcare — have grown faster than standard inflation. It doesn’t take into account Colorado’s rapidly aging population, which is propelling service costs to escalate faster than any other factor.
TABOR doesn’t care whether funding for public schools is still, because of recessionary cuts, $900 million short of the levels approved by voters in 2000. TABOR pays no heed to the fact that 15 years ago, the state paid 70 percent of the cost to attend a public college and now a student is forced to bear two-thirds of the cost. TABOR is oblivious to the fact that only 60 percent of state roads will be rated as being of moderate to high quality by 2016 or that I-70 in the metro area is expected to see wait times of up 12 hours a day by 2035 without improvements.
Instead, current estimates show TABOR will require rebates of $200.4 million in the current fiscal year, $186.5 million the next year and $269.2 million the year after that. That is, unless, lawmakers decide to ask voters to allow the state to retain the rebates.
Lawmakers talk all the time about wanting to help the middle class and create jobs. We think there’s no better way to do this than to restore investments in our education system and infrastructure.
Educated Coloradans make better workers and have the knowledge and skills to create new businesses. That economic advantage is amplified when the state’s road system is well-maintained and can handle the capacity to keep commerce flourishing. Our ability to turn out educated workers is increased when our school and college campuses are well-maintained and have the latest technology.
It is indeed a conundrum we face. The sunrise of a recovering economy shines across our state, but much of its light is blocked by TABOR, preventing the warmth of prosperity from spreading to all corners of Colorado.
We can do better than that. For ourselves and for our children, we have to let the light in.
Carol Hedges is the executive director of the liberal Colorado Fiscal Institute