2019 Leg Session, debt, Joshua Sharf, Politics, TABOR, Taxes

Sharf: Opponents of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights prove why we need it

Look at the list of organizations supporting House Bill 19-1257, the bill to ask Colorado voters to permanently repeal Colorado’s Taxpayer ‘s Bill of Rights (TABOR) spending limits. No fewer than 60 groups hired lobbyists to push for the measure, which will appear on November’s state-wide ballot.

Everyone is represented – governments, non-profits, business groups, unions, school districts, government employees.

Everyone is represented.

Well, everyone except the taxpayer.

Which is why we need a constitutional amendment protecting the taxpayer in the first place.

While TABOR has a number of provisions designed to limit government, there are three main ones. The first requires a citizen vote on all general tax increases – income tax, payroll tax, sales & property tax, etc. Fees directly related to delivering a specific government service are exempt. So-called enterprises, which do not receive general tax revenue, are also allowed to raise their fees and charges without a vote, and what’s more, their revenue doesn’t count towards the overall cap the way than regular fees do.

The second limits annual government revenue growth to inflation plus population growth unless overridden by a vote of the people. The third prevents a government entity from issuing multi-year financial obligations without a vote.

It is the second provision that HB 1257 asks taxpayers to repeal – forever – at the state level. And it’s backed by the cities of Denver, Boulder, and Westminster; the Colorado Hospital Association, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and the Colorado Nonprofit Association; Chambers of Commerce; the teachers unions; the public schools of Denver, Adams County, Poudre Valley, St. Vrain, and the Pikes Peak region.

Why? Because they all have their hands in your pockets. Governments would obviously like to acquire and keep every last dime they possibly can. Public employee unions see pay raises, job security, and retirement benefits in those dollars. School districts see a chance to get more money without having to ask their own citizens for property tax raises. Non-profits, seeking to do well by doing good, see Christmas in November. And more revenue means the potential for more special tax breaks for favored industries and businesses.

All of this comes at the expense of taxpayers, of course; the broadest-based and least-organized group of citizens in the state. Nobody speaks for taxpayers, because it’s assumed they speak for themselves at the ballot box.

That argument would hold a lot more water if the elected representatives had shown the least bit of interest in respecting that voice.

TABOR defenders describe the spending limits and vote requirements as protections and guardrails, while opponent grumble about them as restrictions. In reality, opponents treat them not as rules to be obeyed but as obstacles to be overcome, bypassed, flanked, or in extremis, ignored.

As such, over the years they have aggressively redefined taxes as “fees,” and expanded the Enterprise Exemption to the point where you could drive an ambulance through it. They have set up pass-through entities to issue bonds actually backed by the district, as an evasion around the third restriction.

And all of these evasions and perversions have been implemented to the loud cheering of the groups lined up to back HB 1257, and all have been allowed by the courts, to whom the idea of limited government may as well be expressed in Mandarin, for all they understand it.

There’s a reason the voters of Colorado passed TABOR in 1992, and a reason that governments and their clients hate it with the white-hot passion of a million suns.

It limits what they can do, and it protects the earnings, futures, and freedoms of taxpayers.

And it is utterly and completely necessary.

Joshua Sharf is a fiscal policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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