Despite new assessments showing up in mailboxes throughout Colorado announcing that everyone will likely be paying more in property taxes this year and next, the tax-flush legislature is attempting to raise our property taxes further and without voter approval.
The legislature is like Wile E. Coyote trying to repeatedly and unsuccessfully defeat Colorado’s beloved Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). This year the Coyote intends to float a TNT balloon over TABOR called House Bill 1164. If the bomb explodes, it’ll mean a $91.7 million increase in property taxes for some homeowners in the first year and $237 million over the next two years. When fully implemented, it will be a $288 million per year increase on homeowners.
To set the stage for the Coyote legislature’s latest scheme to mandate mill levy (property tax) increases without our vote, we need to step into a time machine.
In 1992, Coloradans amended the constitution to include TABOR’s restrictions on raising taxes and keeping excess revenue without our express permission. From 1995 through 2006, voters in 174 of the state’s 178 school districts approved broadly worded ballot issues waiving TABOR’s revenue limits (called “deBrucing”), so they could keep more of the revenue generated from increasing property values. That is proof that Colorado voters everywhere are willing to allow the government to grow, if they trust the reasons for it. So far, so good.
Enter Colorado government, the same government that has distributed millions of taxpayer dollars to fulfill fraudulent unemployment claims, and the one that some would like to entrust with — gulp — our health insurance. Every year from 1995 to 2006, the Colorado Department of Education interpreted the School Finance Act to mandate that the districts reduce their mill levies to accommodate the increased revenue, or risk losing state education funding. So, despite having deBruced, they complied. They had to. The legislature then annually adopted a School Finance Act that backfilled these mandated changes with state revenue, which were in turn, relied upon by the school districts. School districts across the state voted for increased property taxes to provide their schools with more funding than the cap otherwise provided.
In 2007, the legislature changed the law, freezing mill levies where they were for school districts. Since then, voters in school districts across Colorado — acting in response and reliance upon the 2007 law freezing mill levies — voted to pass “mill levy overrides” to provide their schools the extra funding they deemed best. And everyone lived happily ever after.
Not so fast.
Last year, the Democrat-dominated legislature and Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, changed the law to declare the previous government-mandated mill levy decreases from more than twenty years prior were “void.” Poof. Just like that. It mattered nothing that voters in school districts like Wray had voted thirteen times to increase their property taxes under the common-sense presumption that the government could not raise their taxes 15 years later without a vote.
Now, Democrats in power ordered school districts to raise property taxes by 1 mill each year until they were at the decades-old levels and told them they did not need to get voter approval to do it. “Don’t worry,” they said, “we will order school districts to offset the increased mill levies, so property owners don’t see any increase at all.” That was sweet of them.
Only one year later, the Dems are offering a law to remove the offset they promised. That means Wray property owners get hit with all the new mill levy increases they did not approve, as well as the ones they did. Wray is not the only rural county to get blown up by this maneuver. Kim and Aguilar school districts sit within Las Animas County, which has a median income 72% below the average in Colorado. For Kim taxpayers, this progressive bait-and-switch creates 16 consecutive years of property tax increases. For Aguilar taxpayers, 19 consecutive years.
Smelling their own blood in the water, Democrats have asked our Supreme Court to pre-bless their disingenuous effort. Amazingly, Attorney General Phil Weiser, who represents every aspect of state government except the legislature, and who is duty-bound to defend our Constitution — including TABOR, has thrown in with the Wile E. tricksters and filed a brief arguing this end-run around TABOR is just fine. What happened to politicians who would chose the Rule of Law and the little Coloradan over hyper-partisan opportunism?
I am hopeful our Supreme Court defends the plain language of our Constitution and supports — in the vernacular of the day — TABOR justice. Reject this law-deaf attempted re-imagining of our constitution by those with legislative privilege. Power to the people, not the politically elite.
Just in case you were wondering, TABOR’s crystal-clear constitutional language reads “districts must have voter approval in advance for…any…mill levy above that for the prior year….” Boom goes the TNT.
George H. Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. A version of this column originally appeared in the Denver Post.
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