By Marcia Martin
Colorado’s economy, according to a Business Insider ranking from January 19th, is 5th (from the top) among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Pretty good. So how is it that our roads are such a mess and in PK through grade 12 education US News puts us in the bottom half of states, at #30?
This is an answer that everybody knows. You can’t miss it because somebody is bound to write or broadcast an exposé on it every few months here in Colorado. But I’ll say it again for those who just moved here.
The immediate cause of our state’s revenue problems is the Constitutional
Amendment known as TABOR, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. It’s popularly
understood to mean that tax increases can only happen through a popular
vote of the people to be taxed. While TABOR does that, it’s also much more
far-reaching – and more diabolical – in how it limits and tends to reduce
revenue available to state and local governments.
In the case of education, revenue is further restricted by a previous
amendment, Gallagher, which sets the ratio of commercial and industrial
property valuations to residential, distorting the tax base and ultimately
diminishing the property tax revenues which used to be the main support of our school system.
There’s an excellent FAQ about all this at Great Education Colorado; everyone should read it. Last session Governor Hickenlooper tried to challenge the nasty interaction between Gallagher and TABOR in the Colorado Supreme Court, saying the laws are contradictory, but the Court declined his gambit.
Our state is in a pickle. Our tax revenues don’t grow with our economy, and
some of the uglier provisions of TABOR require that if revenues happen to
increase too much, they have to be refunded to the taxpayers. Not only is
any lucky surplus hard to spend, but it usually can’t even be retained in a
rainy-day fund against future deficits. What a mess.
This is an opinion feature, so I get to say this: TABOR is a time-bomb
inspired by extreme Libertarian ideology to make government in Colorado
powerless and turn our beautiful state into a playground for unregulated
capitalism. It needs to be repealed.
Unfortunately – perhaps as a reaction to consequences of TABOR that were unforeseen by the voters if not by the amendment’s author, or perhaps as part of his original hellish design – two years after TABOR a second Constitutional amendment was passed. This one –Single Subject – limited Constitutional amendments to a single topic that could be easily characterized in a title. It prevents octopus bills like TABOR. Unfortunately, it also effectively prevents TABOR’s repeal by a single amendment. TABOR will have to be dismantled – or sidestepped.
There are perfectly lawful, Constitutional ways to raise revenues without
falling afoul of TABOR. In 2017 our rural hospitals – which are inadequate
enough in many areas due to the sparse populations on the Eastern Plains
and Western Slope — were in immediate danger of failing. The Hospital
Provider Fee had been created as a way of sharing revenue between Urban
hospitals, whose inpatient costs were paid mainly by private insurers, and
Rural ones, who much more often accepted the lower Medicaid rate. The
Medicaid Expansion gave many more people access to care – and strained the resources of these small facilities terribly.
The fee worked so well that by 2017 the revenues from the Fee were in
danger of causing a TABOR clawback that would affect general revenues, not just hospitals.
So Senator Lucia Guzman (D) introduced a bill to create the Colorado Healthcare Affordability and Sustainability Enterprise to collect the fees and redistribute them equitably back to the hospitals on the basis of total patient-nights provided. Senator Jerry Sonnenberg was the only Republican Senator who voted for it – and took a lot of heat from his party for doing so. (I always like to mention that: I’d never vote for Jerry, but this one time he did the right thing for his constituents, though he made sure in exchange for his deciding vote that *not one extra penny* could be retained above what was needed to make the rural hospitals whole.) The collections of the CHASE, you see, as revenues from an Enterprise, are now not subject to TABOR.
Where in all this is the Capitol Report? Here it comes: On February 14
the Colorado Municipal League held its annual Legislative Workshop for municipal elected officials and staff who are responsible for legislative review. For the most part, this was a nuts-and-bolts affair. Longmont was represented by Mayor Pro Tem Polly Christensen, Council Member Joan Peck, and myself on the elected side, and on the staff side by Assistant City Manager Sandi Seader and Tammy Duerksen.
Governor Polis gave the morning keynote and had encouraging words about Colorado’s renewable energy future, but House Speaker KC Becker dropped the juiciest hints about what we might expect this session, over lunch. She talked about Oil and Gas reform, and TABOR. (There it is!)
Now, it’s common knowledge that there will be a big Oil and Gas reform bill
before the end of the session, but nobody, I mean nobody knows very much
about what’s in it. A big reason for the Democratic Caucus playing its
cards close to the chest like this is that the fossil fuel lobby is already
running ads urging people to tell their representatives to oppose the bill
– regardless of what’s in it. So the Caucus isn’t giving those interests
any details upon which to hang more targeted opposition.
Similarly, Speaker Becker was willing to say that Colorado is expecting a
revenue surplus this year and is working on a way to be able to use the
funds for Education and Transportation. None of the 2018 ballot initiatives
that would have provided money for those needs passed in November. The
conventional wisdom is that the ballot initiatives failed not because
voters oppose education or good roads, but because there were so many, some apparently (though not really) duplicates. People just threw up their
hands and voted NO on everything because it was too hard to tell the good
from the bad.
So instead, Becker talked about finding a way to save out money for
Transportation and Education from the surplus. One-third, she indicated,
would be earmarked for higher education, one-third for K-12 and preschool, and the remainder for transportation. Becker amusingly refers to the process of wresting money away from TABOR’s all-consuming maw as
de-Brucing, after TABOR architect Douglas Bruce, the former legislator and
convicted felon who almost single-handedly forced the law into effect in
But Speaker Becker wouldn’t give many hints as to HOW this miracle is to be accomplished. Cards, chest, remember? But, as she was speaking, the Denver Teachers’ Strike was going on, and it appeared to have the support of the public. And I can personally testify, having ridden to the Workshop in the back of a Prius from the city motor pool, that our roads need work. So I
don’t think the Legislature would be opposing the will of the people by
finding a way to spend this surplus on roads and education. Senate Minority Whip Ray Scott, who shared the podium with Becker and was sounding fairly bipartisan all told, didn’t seem to think so either.
I just hope they find a way to get it done.
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