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IP-12-2012 (October 2012) Author: Robert G. Natelson
PDF of full Issue Paper
Introduction: Opponents of popular participation in government have long argued that when a state constitution or legislature permits the people to vote on revenue measures and other laws, this puts the state out of compliance with the U.S. Constitution’s Guarantee Clause: the requirement at all states have a “Republican Form of Government.” Traditionally, their argument has been that the Constitution draws a sharp distinction between a republic and a democracy, and that citizen initiatives and referenda are too democratic to be republican. Recently, a group of plaintiffs sued in federal court, challenging Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) relying on a variation of this theory.
In this Issue Paper, Professor Rob Natelson, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence and the author of the most important scholarly article on the Guarantee Clause, sets the record straight. Marshaling evidence from Founding-Era sources and from the words of the Founders themselves, he shows that the phrase “Republican Form of Government” permits citizen lawmaking—and that, in fact, most of the governments on the Founders’ list of republics included far more citizen lawmaking than is permitted in Colorado or any other American state. He further shows that the principal purpose of the Guarantee Clause was not to restrict popular government, but to protect popular government by forestalling monarchy.
Current and former lawmakers are taking the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to court for a second opinion.
Workers install a large U.S. flag and a Colorado State Seal on the west side of the Capitol in Denver on Friday, January 7, 2011, as part of the decoration for the inauguration of Governor-elect John Hickenlooper.
Many states have provisions designed to limit the amount of taxes their legislatures can raise, but only Colorado has gone so far as to pass the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, Colorado’s unique constellation of confusing laws prevents the state legislature from raising taxes without public approval and caps the amount the government can spend in a way that’s designed to shrink it over time. All levels of government—city, county, and state—are limited in what they can spend by a complicated formula, which basically indexes revenue to inflation plus population growth. If the tax revenues the state and local governments collect in any given year are higher than the cap, which happens in good economic times or when there is an influx of new residents, states and cities are required by law to refund taxpayers. Over the years, more than 80 cities have passed local referendums to relieve their governments from some of the burdens of TABOR. Last week, Denver voters passed, by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent, a referendum that allows the city to keep the surplus money it has already collected and spend it. The referendum they voted for is called “de-Brucing,” named after the law’s anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce. (On the state level, a de-Brucing referendum passed in 2005.) The city argued that without de-Brucing, it would no longer be able to provide basic city services; it hadn’t trained a new firefighter or police officer class in four years. Continue reading
Centennial will ask voters in November to exempt the city from having to refund excess revenue it takes in as required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
TABOR requires local governments to send out refunds to its taxpayers when revenues exceed a certain amount. The intent of the law is to limit the growth of government revenues.
Centennial voters approved an exemption for the city in 2006 for 65 percent of its revenue and the remaining 35 percent temporarily until the end of 2013.
Centennial City Attorney Bob Widner said that 35 percent is made up of fees and taxes, such as the open-space tax, franchise fees and highway-use tax.
While most of it is not earmarked for specific uses and is often used for street repair, the open-space tax money must be used on open space, which he said creates a problem if the city collects too much of that because then it must refund money to taxpayers from another part of the budget. Continue reading