Voters have right to decide state, local taxes
Former Congressman David Skaggs and former state Sen. Mike Feeley have filed a lawsuit contending that it’s a violation of your federal constitutional rights to allow you to vote on whether or not to raise your state and local taxes. Because taxpayers and not legislators have the final say on tax increases, they think we have “too much democracy” in Colorado.
I’m confident the courts will ultimately conclude otherwise.
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the wisdom of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). And many Coloradans, including myself, believe it’s far too easy to amend our state constitution. But there’s nothing unconstitutional about allowing voters to decide important issues, including whether to raise their taxes.
The plaintiffs claim that letting citizens decide whether taxes are raised violates the “Guarantee Clause” of the U.S. Constitution. In the Guarantee Clause, the United States guarantees each state will have a “republican form of government.” It was intended by our founders to suppress any lingering monarchical tendencies in the original states. They wanted to ensure that Virginians couldn’t make George Washington or Thomas Jefferson a king of their commonwealth, even if they wanted to. The constitutional provision was intended to preserve power to the people, not take it from them.
The essence of a republican form of government is 1) ultimate power to the people exercised either directly or indirectly through a legislature; 2) an elected, accountable executive; and 3) the rule of law. Colorado has all of these. We have a republican form of government. There’s no need for the
federal government, or the plaintiffs, to try and save us from ourselves.
For more than a century, Colorado has provided in its constitution that citizens can participate directly in lawmaking through the power of the initiative and referendum process. Our constitution goes so far as to declare that the people retain all lawmaking power and can modify or reject anything any legislature might do. This product of the Progressive Era has given us, among other things, an eight-hour work day, rejection of the 1976 Olympics, term limits, and marijuana legalization. I believe several initiated measures that have been put in our state constitution are bad public policy. I’ve voted “no” on initiated and referred measures much more often than I’ve voted “yes.” But citizens voting for bad laws (or bad politicians) is neither unusual nor unconstitutional.
The people of Colorado passed TABOR in 1992 and have been debating its wisdom ever since. However, it’s clear that most Coloradans appreciate the right to vote directly on whether to raise taxes. During the past 20 years, local governments have succeeded in raising taxes two-thirds of the time. They tend to tell the voters exactly what they’ll do with the new revenue. At the state level, Proposition AA, Referendum C and Amendment 23 have passed, but several other ambitious tax increases, — including the recently initiated Amendment 66 — have failed.
Statewide tax initiatives have tended to be much less clear about where the money will go. But the bottom line is that in the two decades since TABOR was enacted, local and state revenues have increased by one-third on an inflation-adjusted basis.
The plaintiffs in Kerr vs. Hickenlooper are very frustrated that the interests they align with haven’t gotten the increased tax revenue they want. They clearly want significant increased educational spending and haven’t been able to convince voters of the worthiness of their requests. So they’re doing what so many Americans do these days: try and accomplish in court what they can’t accomplish through political processes.
They’ve concluded Colorado voters aren’t bright enough to embrace their agenda. Instead of returning to the political drawing board and fashioning a request more palatable to the voters, they are asking a federal judge to declare that TABOR violates the U.S. Constitution because it gives too much power to the people. In doing so, they are asking a court to do something that no court has ever done: declare a law unconstitutional because it is too democratic.
If two-thirds of Colorado lawmakers see a need to raise taxes, they can refer a measure to the voters as they did in the case of the recently enacted Proposition AA. History indicates that if they clearly describe a worthy cause for which the money will be spent, voters will be favorably inclined. But when various interest groups pursue ill-defined tax initiatives through a petition process, voters have been understandably skeptical.
TABOR detractors should re-enter the political fray, aggressively pursue their objectives in the political arena, and stop draining the resources of the state in costly litigation designed to suppress the rights of Colorado voters. While I don’t always agree with the choices made by the Colorado voters, their constitutional right to make such choices should be preserved.
John Suthers is Colorado attorney general.
Read more: Should TABOR be dismantled? No – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_24623852/no-voters-have-right-decide-state-local-taxes#ixzz2mGu7UKRe
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