Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights should be strengthened, not repealed
On Jan. 15, a briefly worded initiative was presented to the Colorado Title Board for consideration to be placed on the 2020 ballot. The brevity of the proposal was commendable. Five words was all it needed: “TABOR – Repeal (Full TABOR Repeal).” Though speculative at this point, defenders of Article X Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution — better known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) — should prepare for a fight in 2020.
Well before TABOR became law in 1992, opponents concocted every possible scenario as to how this new constitutional amendment would lead to fiscal armageddon in Colorado. Nearly three decades after its passing, most of this hyperbole — as is the case for most hyperbole — never materialized.
Where is Colorado from a fiscal perspective? According to the States Project, Colorado ranks 30th in the country for total state debt (including unfunded liabilities) as a percentage of gross state product. The Mercatus Center ranks our state as 28th in the nation regarding a combination of solvency for cash, budget, long-run spending, service-level flexibility, and unfunded liabilities. U.S. News ranked Colorado 31st in fiscal stability.
It would seem Colorado is middle of the pack at best. TABOR did not ruin our state’s ability to manage the general fund.
Contrary to popular wisdom of the Chicken Littles who warned about how damaging it would be to Colorado, TABOR doesn’t need to be repealed; it needs to be strengthened.
It has become increasingly apparent that lawmakers have taken advantage of legal loopholes. Rather than ask voters to raise taxes, lawmakers bypassed those “pesky” constitutionally required referendums by increasing fees on various services, allowing them to shakedown taxpayers and fill their general fund coffers.
Case in point: the Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act (FASTER) of 2009. FASTER managed to raise $10 million per year for the state of Colorado — all “without raising taxes,” the disingenuous FASTER cheerleaders gushed. However, Coloradans all experienced a huge hike in their car registration fees as a result of this verbal switcheroo.
Fortunately, this “fee-and-spend” strategy has been recently challenged in court. Mesa County District Judge Lance Timbreza ruled against the Grand Valley Drainage District (GVDD), stating that the taxing body illegally collected revenue. The judgment ordered that the organization to refund millions of dollars to the 40,000 residents who were wrongfully assessed. GVDD chose not to appeal the decision. Hopefully this case serves as a precedent for future fees to be challenged, and put an end to this rhetorical trickery.
And it isn’t just crafty wordplay being used by lawmakers to circumvent our state constitution — they are also leveraging questionable financing schemes to fund their rent-seeking endeavors.
After Coloradans rejected two different ballot initiatives regardings transportation funding, Colorado lawmakers dreamed up a plan that sounds like a sequel to “The Big Short.”
On Nov. 27, Marianne Goodland of Colorado Politics reported that the Colorado General Assembly approved raising $500 million though “lease-purchase” agreement involving 25 state buildings — 12 of which were owned by the Department of Corrections. Colorado lawmakers bonded our state prisons, using them as collateral to fund road transportation. Let’s hope that we can pay back those bonds.
Considering that voters have approved numerous changes to TABOR (e.g., Referendum C which relaxed the “ratchet-down” effect, hundreds of “de-Brucing” measures, etc.), it might seem that Coloradans disapprove of TABOR. Again, the contrary is true. University of Colorado-Boulder found that 49 percent of voters approved of TABOR, while 30 percent disapproved.
TABOR puts taxpayers in the driver’s seat to make these fiscal decisions. Coloradans control the purse strings of government, thanks to TABOR. If a compelling case can be made where there is demonstrable need, Coloradans have the political clout to open up that purse, which they often do on the local level.
The Colorado Title Board denied setting a title to the aforementioned TABOR repeal, citing that the proposal didn’t meet the single subject rule. The petitioners, as expected, will challenge this decision and continue to push to strike this amendment from the Colorado constitution.
Until then, the message to lawmakers should persist: spend within your means. Repealing TABOR disempowers Coloradans by removing a necessary check on lawmakers’ insatiable appetite for our tax dollars.
Jay Stooksberry is chair of the Libertarian Party of Delta County.