The month before his second term starts, Gov. John Hickenlooper is painting a bleak picture of Colorado’s future budget situation, even as the state’s economic fortunes improve.
“Some of the things we’ve taken for granted and counted on in terms of our quality of life, we probably won’t be able to continue to afford,” he told the Denver Forum at a luncheon Tuesday.
The reason for the strife, the Democrat made clear, is the state’s constitutional spending limit known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
It’s politically volatile to point the finger at TABOR, and Hickenlooper sought to walk a fine line as he raised questions about its impact.
In fiscal year 2016, Colorado is forecasting taxpayer refunds because the state’s revenues are exceeding the inflation-plus-population-growth-cap for the first time in 15 years.
Unless lawmakers seek to keep the money, the refunds will go out the door even as the state struggles to meet its constitutional requirement to fund education under what is known as Amendment 23. The state is short $900 million on education funding, according to analysts.
“Amendment 23 requires us to spend more. TABOR requires us to spend less. It really is a Gordian knot,” he said.
Yet Hickenlooper isn’t supporting changes to TABOR to ease the money flow.
He prefaced his remarks by saying, “Just for the record, I like TABOR.”
“I’m not saying we should get rid of TABOR,” he continued. “I think people should have the right to vote. But they need to have the facts. Inflation plus population growth doesn’t solve all the fiscal challenges we need.”
In an interview after the event, Hickenlooper also made clear he doesn’t support asking voters to allow the state to keep the TABOR refund money. He endorsed refunds in his election-eve budget proposal.
“My job, my focus right now is to make sure everybody understands that in two years we are going to have real difficult decisions,” he said.
The potential effects, Hickenlooper told the well-heeled group at the private Denver Athletic Club, are clear.
“In other words,” he said, “waiting times will go up (and) we will have a hard time delivering a lot of the basic good government that we worked so hard these last four years to create.”
Despite the grim portrait that sobered the room, Hickenlooper is trying to remain optimistic about what he faces in his second term.
“I’m not trying to be a doomsday,” he said. But, he added, “w e are going to have to steel ourselves.”
John Frank: 303-954-2409, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ByJohnFrank