Colorado’s economy is improving and more taxes are being collected. That means the state legislature can start to catch up on spending for vital education and human-service programs which are grossly underfunded by national standards.
But will that happen? Perhaps not as Colorado is uniquely constrained from functioning as a representative democracy. In 1992, voters passed the so-called Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR), a constitutional measure which is the most restrictive tax and expenditure limit in the nation.
TABOR mandates elections for all tax and debt increases. It limits state revenue collections to a cap set according to the rate of inflation plus population growth, requiring rebates to taxpayers when revenue exceeds that cap.
The population-plus-inflation formula is not grounded in reality. First, the sectors of Colorado’s population who require the most state services, such as seniors and school-aged kids under 18, are projected to grow faster than the population as a whole.
Second, TABOR’s inflation measure — the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) — doesn’t allow Colorado to keep pace with the cost of maintaining social services. The CPI-U calculates the cost of goods and services that individual consumers buy such as food, housing and transportation, not the services state governments provide such as education and health care. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes:
“The cost of providing public services grows much faster than the general rate of inflation for consumer goods, in part because public services are less likely to reap the efficiency and productivity gains achieved by other sectors of the economy. For example, teachers can only teach so many students, and nurses can only care for so many patients.”
TABOR is a long and complex law. It applies to every unit of government below the federal level including state, county, city, school district, etc. It specifically prohibits certain kinds of taxes such as the graduated income tax, a statewide property tax and increased real estate transfer taxes.
In 2000, voters approved Amendment 23, which mandates annual increases in K-12 education spending. That was in response to TABOR-related cuts to education. Later the state legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 so they could cut K-12 funds.
In January at Gov. John Hickenlooper’s inaugural celebration, former Gov. Roy Romer urged Hickenlooper “to lead a movement in this state to repeal the TABOR amendment.” He was cheered. At an assembly of school administrators this month, Boulder School Superintendent Bruce Messinger repeated Romer’s plea.
However, Hickenlooper is afraid that TABOR is just too popular. He doesn’t even want to ask voters whether the state can keep the upcoming TABOR rebates. The refunds to each taxpayer wouldn’t amount to much — from $25 (for the poorest person) to $70 (for the richest).
Perhaps the answer is in the courts. In 2012, a lawsuit was filed in federal court arguing that TABOR has limited the powers of the legislature so much that we no longer have a “republican” form of government, which violates the U.S. Constitution and the act that made Colorado a state in 1876. The plaintiffs are current and former public officials (state legislators, university presidents, county commissioners, school board members, city councilors, teachers and citizens). Two-thirds of the plaintiffs are Democrats and onethird are Republicans.
If you calculate government expenditures as a percentage of a state’s gross domestic product (GDP), Colorado’s state government spending is considerably below the country’s average — ranking 48th — which means only two other states have smaller relative state government size.
TABOR’s impact on the state’s public services has been disasterous. The CBPP cites a few examples:
“Colorado fell from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income.
“College and university funding as a share of personal income declined from 35th in the nation to 48th.
“Colorado fell to near the bottom of national rankings in providing children with full, on-time vaccinations.”
Let’s admit it. We are guinea pigs in a dystopic experiment. TABOR was cleverly designed to shrink and maim democratic government and empower privatizing plutocrats. However, far rightists (such as Grover Norquist, the Koch brothers and ALEC) fell on their face when they to tried to peddle TABOR snake oil in some 30 other states. They failed each time. Does that tell you something?
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.