Ben Murrey, Governor Polis, Politics, Taxes

Murrey: Colorado Democrats’ pervasive hypocrisy on tax fairness

A story broke recently that Governor Jared Polis paid no federal income tax for three consecutive years. The news reflects Colorado Democrats’ pervasive hypocrisy on tax fairness, but it also presents an opportunity to eliminate income tax for all Coloradans.

“As a member of Congress, Jared Polis was one of the loudest Democrats demanding President Donald Trump release his tax returns,” the ProPublica report begins. “That same year, on the floor of the House, he introduced a resolution to force the president to release the records.”

When Polis ran for governor of Colorado a couple years later, however, he refused to disclose his own tax returns. We now know why, and it reeks of hypocrisy.

It makes matters worse that he ran for governor, in part, on the message of tax fairness and has imposed hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes in the name of that agenda. He told voters he wanted to make the tax code more even-handed by taking away “deductions and loopholes that benefit special interests.”

Yet the ProPublica report reveals that Polis reduced his own tax bill by exploiting special tax deductions.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio the day the story broke, after noting that nothing he did was technically illegal, the governor cleverly used the reporter’s question about his IRS records to highlight the need for tax fairness and to parade some of his party’s legislative victories.

“[T]he tax system favors the wealthy and big corporations,” Polis explained. “That’s why I champion tax reforms for a better, fairer system.”

The reference was to several bills he signed, which purported to make the tax code fairer by eliminating certain tax deductions. Most recently, near the end of the 2021 legislative session in June, Colorado House Democrats issued a press release lauding Governor Polis’ signing of a “tax fairness package,” comprised of House Bill 21-1311 and House Bill 21-1312.

In truth, these bills, along with House Bill 20-1420, were tax increases posturing as tax fairness measures. The 2020 income tax bill, for example, increased state revenues by eliminating at the state level CARES Act tax benefits designed to help small businesses survive the state’s mandatory lockdowns. HB 1311 eliminated from state law the tax deduction for savings for a child’s education, among other provisions in the tax code. Together, the three bills created hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases.

Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, touted the bills in the aforementioned release: “Without a doubt, our tax code is more fair today because [of] the package we passed and Governor Polis signed…ending ineffective tax windfalls and loopholes for those at the very top.”

His comment aged poorly. Polis is one of the wealthiest individuals in Colorado with an estimated net worth over $300 million. He paid zero income tax multiple years in a row, according to yesterday’s news report.

All this reveals an important truth, which Colorado Democrats evidence continuously: Progressives do not care about tax fairness; they care about increasing taxes and government power. They merely use tax fairness as a ruse to advance their big-government agenda.

In 2021 alone Colorado’s Democrat-controlled legislature created over $600 million dollars in new state taxes and fees — all of which Polis signed — and all without voter consent. They justified around half of that in the name of “tax fairness.” Most of the rest came from regressive fees, which cost the poor much more taken as a portion of income.

Take Senate Bill 21-260 as a case in point. The $5.3 billion experiment in “Green New Deal” style transportation projects gets its funding mostly from regressive new taxes — dubiously called “fees” in the bill. Now, Coloradans will pay fees on common purchases such as gas, food delivery, ridesharing, rental cars, and more. These costs place an unequal burden on lower earners to fund government spending.

But there is another way to look at all this. Perhaps it was not hypocritical for Polis to pay zero income tax.

In an interview over the summer, Polis admitted that he prefers zero state income tax for all Coloradans. He may have no income tax bill some years, but he does not think anyone else should either — at least not at the state level where he governs.

Denver’s Independence Institute, the free-market public policy think tank where I work, has a plan to put the state on a path to zero income tax. It’s a fair, across-the-board elimination of the state income tax for all Coloradans—not just for the ultra-wealthy like Polis.

Since the governor has already agreed he wants to abolish the state income tax, the question now is whether his fellow Democrats will get on board.

Ben Murrey is fiscal policy director at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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