Last week, Democratic state legislators announced plans for a bill aimed at taking away taxpayer refunds granted under the state Constitution. Governor Polis has a clear mandate from Colorado voters to oppose the effort.
The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights—commonly known as TABOR—requires the state to return tax revenue surpluses to taxpayers in a manner determined by the state legislature. Surpluses totaled nearly $4 billion last year.
In April, Polis stood on the steps of the state capitol and announced legislation to give back about $2.7 billion of the surplus via $750 checks to every Colorado taxpayer. Each check came accompanied by a letter in which the governor appeared to take personal credit for the refunds, calling them “Colorado Cash Back.”
Consequently—the deceptive political tactic notwithstanding—Coloradans stepped into the voting booth last November believing a vote for Polis was a vote for TABOR refunds.
They likely believed their legislators supported TABOR also. Lawmakers from both parties stood behind Polis when he announced the mechanism for issuing the constitutionally mandated refunds, joining him in praising them.
With last week’s bill announcement, Democratic legislators have already proved themselves two-faced on the issue. Polis’s reputation, however, remains thus far intact.
Astute observers might object, pointing out that the governor supported Proposition CC in 2019. The measure, referred to the ballot by the legislature, asked voters to give up their TABOR refunds forever. Voters rejected the idea.
After hearing what voters had to say, the governor rightly changed his position and became a supporter of TABOR refunds, choosing to stand with the people of Colorado on the issue. He continued this support on the campaign trail last year where he touted the rebate checks at every televised gubernatorial debate.
Because he ran as a champion of TABOR refunds, his electoral victory in November comes with a mandate from the people of Colorado to defend their refunds.
Polis won his reelection bid by nearly 20 points—a larger margin than any other statewide elected official. Fortunately, his popularity gives him enormous influence during his second and final term as governor. It’s time for him to use it.
Though the prime sponsors of the forthcoming legislation to abolish taxpayer rebates, Rep. Cathy Kipp (D) and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D), have not yet made the bill text public, they say surpluses would fund public schools instead of going back to taxpayers. Their proposal is entirely out of step with what voters have repeatedly said on this issue. Polis ought to remind them of that before they create a lose-lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
Once legislators introduce the bill, they leave Polis with the option of joining their effort, making himself a hypocrite, or opposing them and dividing his party. If in either case the legislature passes the bill, taxpayers become the next possible losers.
The governor would be wise to work behind the scenes right now and dissuade legislators from proceeding down this misguided path.
If legislators nonetheless proceed with the bill and pass it through the General Assembly, it will go to the ballot for voter approval. At that point, it would be incumbent on Polis to stand with the people of Colorado over his party by publicly opposing the measure. While the governor cannot veto the bill, his word holds authority and sway with voters.
The abolition of refunds would mean more taxpayer money in state coffers—effectively, a tax increase. Yet, when lawmakers tried to end the refunds in 2019, the language they put on the ballot for voters to see began, “WITHOUT RAISING TAXES AND TO BETTER FUND PUBLIC SCHOOLS…” No doubt they will attempt the same deception this time around.
Thanks to his rhetoric and actions on the campaign trail, voters see Polis as a defender of their TABOR refunds. The governor’s articulate public opposition to this Democratic effort could clarify for voters that the measure would indeed raise taxes by raiding taxpayers’ refunds.
As a word of caution, Polis tried to split the baby on this issue in 2019, and he may attempt that again this year. During the debate over Proposition CC, the governor at one point proposed a compromise that would have stripped taxpayers of their refunds in exchange for a minuscule and temporary 0.04% income tax rate reduction.
Such a trade would leave taxpayers with the short end of the stick, trading about $100 million in annual tax cuts for billions of dollars in lost refunds. Moreover, in 2022 Polis campaigned in favor of both TABOR refunds and income tax reductions, not either or.
That legislators now aim to take away TABOR refunds after lauding them just last year betrays the public trust. Polis still has that trust. Whether he keeps it will depend on what he does next. Political integrity demands that he unequivocally oppose taking TABOR refund dollars from taxpayers.
Ben Murrey is fiscal policy director at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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