Legislators debate TABOR’s role in helping state budget
KYLE HENLEY THE GAZETTE
DENVER – A spat over the way the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights affects Colorado’s cities and counties is stalling legislative efforts to fix conflicting constitutional provisions that are creating state budget problems.
A group of lawmakers wants to relieve cities and counties from the spending constraints of TABOR — which was passed in 1992 and caps the amount of revenue government can keep and spend each year — as part of the effort to shore up the ailing state budget.
Another group of lawmakers, led by Gov. Bill Owens and El Paso County Republicans, says local governments shouldn’t be included in the deal.
Nullifying TABOR is often called de-Brucing, an homage to Douglas Bruce, the Colorado Springs anti-tax crusader who wrote TABOR.
Any government entity — city, county or school district — can ask voters to de-Bruce, and many already have.
“Ninety percent of the local governments that have gone to the ballot have de-Bruced,” Owens said. “I would feel uncomfortable telling the 10 percent that haven’t done that that they now have to.”
The discussion about the impact of TABOR on local government is taking place in a broader debate among state lawmakers about how to best fix the state’s budget problems.
TABOR, which caps government spending, conflicts with Amendment 23, the measure approved by voters in 2000 that requires the state to increase education spending by inflation plus 1 percent each year.
Together, TABOR and Amendment 23 require the state to spend more but keep less.
As a result, the state expects to face a $254 million deficit for the 2005-06 fiscal year.
Fixing the conflict was lawmakers’ No. 1 priority during the legislative session that ended May 5, but they failed to find a solution and have been meeting in recent weeks to see whether there is any room for compromise.
If a deal can be struck, Owens likely would call a special session of the Legislature to ratify the deal, which then would have to be submitted to voters in November.
One of the sticking points in the talks is how to deal with local governments.
Legislative leaders met several times on the issue last week.
“I think it is a point of principle,” said House Minority Leader Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver. “If TABOR affects both state and local government, then why not remove the flaw from both?”
Sam Mamet, associate director of the Colorado Municipal League, argues that many local governments are under the same TABOR-related fiscal pressures as the state.
“Yes, it is true that de-Brucing questions… have had a strong success rate at the local level,” he said. “But it isn’t as if, as some at the Capitol have suggested, those have all been open-ended blank checks.”
Since 1992, cities have asked voters 464 times for permission to keep or retain tax revenue above the TABOR limits. Those requests have been approved 88.4 percent of the time.
Mamet said, however, that more than two-thirds of those requests were set dollar amounts for specific projects that included a fixed time with a clear end.
Such narrow de-Brucing measures don’t help local governments with budget problems, he said.
“We seek the same kind of relief that the state is seeking under TABOR,” he said. “Our problems are no different than the states. To fix the problem without a local solution is no solution at all.”
Most of the resistance to helping out local governments is coming from El Paso County lawmakers, who say there is a perception in the Pikes Peak region that de-Brucing is unpopular.
“The people have clearly expressed their opinion at the ballot box, and they want to keep the (TABOR) limits,” said House Majority Leader Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.
Some say King’s characterization is not accurate.
“In Colorado Springs, we have had some success in the past, not only in asking voters to retain revenue but also to increase taxes,” said Mike Anderson, city budget director.
Colorado Springs has asked voters seven times for permission to keep a portion of the TABOR surplus and four of those times, voters have agreed.
In addition, Colorado Springs voters have approved two tax increases, one for open space and another for public safety.
The total TABOR surplus for Colorado Springs between 1992 and 2003 was $33.2 million, but only $3.7 million was refunded to voters. The rest was kept by the government, with voters’ permission.
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