As expected, Democratic lawmakers announced their intent to keep all taxpayer money and permanently set aside the spending cap that is key to the effectiveness of Colorado’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), an amendment to the state constitution passed in 1992 that requires state and local government to seek voter approval before raising taxes. The measure also limits growth in some state spending to population growth, plus inflation, and if the state takes in more than it is allowed to spend, the state must return the surplus to taxpayers.
TABOR is simple; it’s about consent. Our government can raise taxes, but it has to ask first. Democrats in the State House and Senate don’t think they should have to ask first. In addition to seeking voter approval for additional taxes, TABOR fosters good, fair, and consensual government.
One example of Democrats’ end-run around TABOR is the FAMLI Leave Act, which is a state-run family leave program funded by a tax on employees and employers. The tax should be a fatal flaw, but Democrats in the state legislature don’t actually call it a tax because it would have to go to a vote of the people. And they know that based on recent history, it would probably lose. This bill is the most flagrant violation of TABOR, and there is no telling how high this tax could go because there’s no cap.
To add insult to taxpayer injury, Democratic leadership in the legislature plans to put a question on the ballot this year that would raise taxes by nearly $1 billion by not returning taxpayer funds to taxpayers and remove limitations on government spending – forever.
This means unchecked state legislative spending. Imagine the party they’ll have with an unlimited taxpayer funded ATM for pet projects benefiting rich guys like Quentin Tarantino, Elon Musk, and California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer. While hardworking Coloradans just get the overdrawn notice from the bank.
Supporters claim that these funds would go toward funding higher education, K-12 schools, and transportation, but we’ve seen this fiscal trickery before. The last time voters were asked (and approved) a TABOR “timeout” was Referendum C in 2005. Politicians and special interest groups promised voters that the additional funds would to go education and healthcare. Instead voters got a budgeting shell game of unchecked spending.
In fact, two years after the temporary lifting of TABOR’s spending cap, a mere 17 percent of respondents to a poll commissioned by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce believed that Ref C dollars had or mostly had been spent as intended. For comparison, 16 percent of Americans believe Big Foot is real.
Like proponents of this year’s legislative proposal, Ref C proponents assured voters that K-12 education, colleges and universities, and health care would split most of the funds if the measure passed.
In fact, an Independence Institute study found that while general fund spending increased by $1 billion or 16.1 percent, spending on Ref C “targets” – K-12, higher ED, and health care grew by just 11.9 percent.
What happened to the money?
After Ref C passed, the legislature swapped $306 million in K-12 spending from the general fund for $261 million from Ref C, and did the same with Medicaid and higher education. The legislature, then, had a free hand to divert ordinary resources to pet projects that were not a part of Ref C campaign promises. In fact, some of the programs that were supposed to get additional funding ended up with less funding than before Ref C.
Back to present day. Recent polling shows that TABOR is wildly popular in Colorado, with 71 percent of likely voters giving it a thumbs up. Considering state lawmakers enjoy over a $1 billion in surplus taxpayer dollars, their cries of poverty will fall on deaf ears.
It’s time politicians put as much energy into being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and prioritizing spending as they do on defaming our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. If they did, we’d probably have bipartisan solutions to funding for education, transportation, health care, higher ED, and a whole host of other issues.
Because it’s unlikely that voters will fall a second time for politicians’ fiscal sleight of hand.