2020 Leg Session, Featured, Joshua Sharf, Politics, TABOR, Taxes, Transit, Transportation, Uncategorized

Sharf: Letting DRCOG tax; bad process, bad policy, bad outcomes

Working its way through the Colorado legislature is a bill that would radically restructure major Front Range transportation and planning decisions, effectively removing them from citizen control, and challenging fundamental American notions of governance.

HB20-1151, titled “Expand Authority For Regional Transportation Improvements,” would allow the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), known affectionately as Dr. Cog, to exercise taxing and fee-raising authority, even though it doesn’t mention DRCOG by name. It is currently scheduled to be heard by the House Transportation & Local Government Committee on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4.

The ostensible purpose of the bill is to allow transportation planning organizations (TPOs) to raise additional money for Front Range transit. Money raised through fees and taxes would not count against state transportation funding, and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) would have to show that it did not take the additional revenue into account.

In practice, the effects would be much more far-reaching, re-ordering the relationship between Denver and its suburbs, and accelerating the effort to shut off opportunity for millions of Front Range citizens.

No mere student council for would-be politicos, DRCOG already makes decisions that affect the lives of the citizens throughout the seven-county metro area, plus Gilpin and Clear Creek Counties. Its regional growth and transportation plans become the basis for countless local decisions affecting how you drive and what housing is available to you. On top of lobbyists hired by its constituent local governments, DRCOG maintains its own lobbyists at the state capitol.

More than that, it dispenses a considerable amount of federal grant money for local projects. (Denver foolishly forfeited roughly $20 million in DRCOG-directed federal grants by failing to come up with a plan to widen the Quebec Street bottleneck in time.)

Currently, about 8% of its money comes from taxpayer-funded membership dues from local governments. The bill would allow it to fund itself directly through taxes and fees. While the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) would require voter approval for any new taxes, governments have been remarkably creative, and courts remarkably permissive, in allowing the levying of “fees” which are taxes in all but name. We should have no doubt that DRCOG would avail itself of whatever leeway it could find or create.

Such taxing authority is a radical reordering of the relationship of government to citizens. One of the most fundamental, most basic elements of American governance is that the taxing power belongs to the people or to its elected representatives directly responsible to them.

This is the reason that Senate Bill 18-267  was so insidious. It took a Hospital Provider Fee, which by law was made invisible to the end consumer, and placed it in the hands of an appointed committee, where it can now be raised without limit or accountability to voters. The market distortions involved are the least of the problems.

It has been pointed out that new fees or proposed tax increases would require only a 10-day notice before public hearings on the matter. To complain about the short window misses the point. It would be no better if it were 30 days or 30 months.

DRCOG is not a legislature, it is not a super-legislature, its members are not elected by the people. Its members are appointed by the local member governments. It was created by those governments, not by a vote of the people. Even new local elections would not guarantee that new representatives would be appointed. It has no business being able to tax or to impose fees.

In his 2012 book Spreading the Wealth, Stanley Kurtz describes how the empowerment of regional super-governments is part of a national trend, designed to extend urban power over suburbs that the cities wrongly blame for their decline.

Urban growth boundaries, such as the one described in DRCOG’s MetroVision plan, prevent the development of new single-family housing, the kind that most Americans aspire to. Right now, the Denver metro growth boundaries are voluntary and somewhat flexible. Given taxing authority and a self-created source of revenue, look for those boundaries to become harder.

The results will be the same as they are everywhere, accelerating trends we see here in Denver. Housing costs will rise even more. People will be artificially crammed into ever-denser neighborhoods. The suburbs will look more and more like the cities that people left behind. And those who live there will be forced to subsidize the urban core.

Ultimately, citizens will find themselves trapped in an impenetrable interlocking web of regulations, restrictions, taxes, and fees, circumscribing their everyday land use and transportation decisions, but leaving them free to choose their favorite coffee shop. Regulatory processes already dominated by bureaucrats and activists will leave the average citizen even further behind.

In a place where political theory and political practice intersect and hit close to home, allowing a council of governments, staffed by unaccountable bureaucrats, to practice social engineering on it citizens and force them to pay for it, is exactly the outcome that our form of government is designed to avoid.

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

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