Last year, Colorado Democrats championed TABOR refunds as they campaigned for reelection. Yet not a week into the 2023 legislative session, they announced plans to try and halt those refunds indefinitely.
A forthcoming bill by Rep. Cathy Kipp (D) and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D), if passed by the legislature and approved by voters, would allow the state to retain future tax refund dollars mandated under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado’s Constitution. Kipp says the money would go to fund public schools.
Proponents of this idea have failed in the past to gather the 120,000 signatures required to put the question on the November ballot. The legislature can circumvent this requirement by passing the measure as a bill first.
Every time voters speak on key issues related to TABOR, they send the same unambiguous message: “Leave TABOR alone and let us keep our money!”
Democratic legislators either didn’t get the message, or they just don’t care what voters think.
In 2019 after voters gave Democrats unified control over state government, legislators thanked them by sending Proposition CC–which would have permanently ended TABOR refunds–to the November ballot, where Coloradans soundly rejected it.
Coloradans spoke loud and clear: “Leave TABOR alone and let us keep our money!”
In 2020, voters had the choice between two competing citizen-led ballot initiatives. One would have raised taxes and repealed TABOR’s requirement that Colorado maintains the same income tax rate for all taxpayers. The other, put on the ballot by my organization, Independence Institute, reduced the state’s income tax rate from 4.63 to 4.55 percent. The latter passed with a wide margin. The former failed even to gather enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
Once again, Coloradans spoke loud and clear: “Leave TABOR alone and let us keep our money!”
Fast forward to 2022. If the people of Colorado had not made their will clear enough already, last year left no ambiguity.
First, progressives launched a citizen initiative nearly identical to the pending legislative measure. Initiative 63 would have taken TABOR refunds from taxpayers and given the money back to the state to spend on public education. Like the tax increase measure from 2020, the initiative failed even to make the ballot.
Conversely, Independence Institute worked to put Proposition 121 on the ballot. The measure won with more than a 30-point margin and lowered the state income tax rate from 4.55 to 4.4 percent, saving taxpayers over $400 million per year.
Meanwhile, TABOR required the legislature to choose a method for refunding $3.85 billion in state revenue surpluses to taxpayers. Lawmakers elected to send out $750 checks to individual filers and $1,500 checks to joint filers to fill their constitutional obligation.
Governor Jared Polis and his colleagues in the legislature announced last year’s refund mechanism at a press conference on the steps of the capitol. There they publicly celebrated TABOR as they faced reelection last November—a sharp departure from their 2019 attempt to eliminate TABOR refunds. They evidently got the message Coloradans had been sending them.
In response to the announcement, then Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said, “I’m happy that Jared Polis and the Democrats in the state legislature have publicly reversed course and are now joining Republicans in touting the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.”
Colorado Democrats campaigned as fiscal conservatives and TABOR advocates and won. Now, with their power over state government secure, they are wasting no time in once again reversing course on TABOR and stabbing taxpayers in the back.
Despite their rhetoric on the campaign trail in 2022, the TABOR refund repeal bill comes as no surprise. After Sen. Zenzinger discussed options for abolishing TABOR refunds with Joint Budget Committee (JBC) staff in a November hearing, I sounded the alarm that Democrats would attempt this money grab again in 2023. They proved me right on day three of the legislative session.
Only a handful of bills introduced each session ever receive a floor vote. The fact that JBC Chair Zenzinger is the prime senate sponsor of this bill, however, suggests it may be a key priority of Democratic leadership, greatly increasing its chance of passage.
Rep. Kipp argues that the legislature must take refunds away from taxpayers to “properly fund our public schools.” When petitioners presumably explained this to everyday Coloradans as they gathered signatures for Initiative 63 last year, the argument clearly fell flat.
While the legislature has the authority to sidestep signature gathering and put the measure directly on the ballot, doing so demonstrates how out-of-touch Democratic legislators are on TABOR and taxes.
Rather than wasting time and taxpayer dollars to put a request on the ballot which Coloradans have repeatedly refused, lawmakers should focus their efforts on issues that matter to voters—like putting the state on a path to zero income tax.
Ben Murrey is fiscal policy director at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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