Who do you trust to spend your money: You, or the government?
Unfortunately for Coloradans, that’s not a rhetorical question. At issue is the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — and it’s currently under assault.
Enacted by voters in 1992, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is a state constitutional amendment that protects Colorado taxpayers against the runaway spending that is threatening state budgets across the country and has driven many local governments into bankruptcy. It has two central components. First, voters may reject any proposed state tax increase, as they have by huge margins twice in recent years. Second, the state must issue tax refunds when total revenues for any given year outpace inflation and population growth.
That second component is now being threatened. 2015 is projected to be the first year since the 2008-09 recession that taxpayers are likely to be eligible for a refund — a refund of roughly $116 million. The principle supporting this refund is simple: Once government has sufficient funds to cover current operations and nominal growth, any excess revenues should be returned to the people who earned it and paid it in the first place: State taxpayers like you and me.
But a growing number of state politicians and pundits disagree. They argue the limits imposed by the Bill of Rights prevent the government from spending that money on important items. As a result, the argument goes, the state should keep the $116 million to spend on key infrastructure projects and K-12 education, which ostensibly are experiencing budget shortfalls.
The evidence suggests otherwise. For one, the government has fared quite well. Total revenue from taxes and fees has grown 43 percent in recent years — from $8.6 billion in 2010 to a projected $12.3 billion this year. This growth in revenues in turn enabled more spending as well. During that same time, General Fund spending — the state’s chief spending account — grew at a similarly explosive clip, from just over $7 billion in 2010 to over $10.2 billion today.
In other words, the government’s bank account is doing just fine.
So you may be wondering, where has all this additional money gone? Fully 91 percent of it has gone to health care and social services programs, while a mere 3.6 percent has gone to K-12 education and even less to transportation spending.
The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights doesn’t need to be gutted — what needs fixing is the insatiable appetite for higher taxes and more government spending in the state Capitol. In other words, big spending politicians should focus their attention on setting realistic budget priorities before blaming the Bill of Rights for the state government’s failure to make tough choices or live within its means.
Even if the government were to keep the $116 million of additional revenues, there’s no guarantee it would go to K-12 education and infrastructure. In fact, if recent history is any guide, Colorado taxpayers should be quite skeptical of these claims.
State lawmakers made similar funding promises the last time a tax refund was due in 2005. That year, voters approved Referendum C — which allowed the state to keep all eligible refunds for a period of five years — largely on promises that the additional revenue would be spent on K-12, higher education, and health care.
Yet merely three weeks after voters passed Referendum C, then-Governor Owens requested that over two-thirds of the available funds be redirected towards other priorities. Very little of the additional revenue was spent how voters had been promised. But by that point it didn’t matter — voters allowed lawmakers to keep their money, and lawmakers were free to spend it as they saw fit.
This raises a simple point: Colorado taxpayers should be wary when politicians make promises about future spending plans. More often than not, those promises are subject to change.
This debate is only going to heat up in the coming months and years as Colorado’s economy continues to improve and our potential taxpayer refunds continue to grow. As it does, you should keep asking yourself the same question: Who can spend my money more wisely — me, or the government? Given the evidence, there’s only one answer.
By Dustin Zvonek
Dustin Zvonek is the Colorado state director of Americans for Prosperity.