No, TABOR does not make it harder to raise taxes

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In trying to explain the sound ass-kicking Colorado voters administered to Prop CC, the Denver Post’sAlex Burness offered the following reflection:

“For Democrats, it was a chance to finally put a dent in TABOR, which significantly hampers the ability of Colorado governments to raise money because it requires voter support for any tax hike. Voters have been loathe to pass new statewide taxes since TABOR passed 27 years ago.”

No argument with the part about Democrats seeing Prop CC — the ballot proposal that would have gutted the Taxpayer Bill of Rights’ (TABOR) tax refund provisions — as a step toward getting rid of TABOR. That much is self-evident.

But the suggestion that TABOR “significantly hampers the ability of Colorado governments to raise money because it requires voter support for any tax hike” is another matter.

TABOR does not hamper the ability of local governments by requiring voter support for new taxes and extensions of old ones. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I haven’t checked these numbers lately, but in the 10 or 15 elections that followed the passage of TABOR in 1992, 50% of municipal, county and school district tax increases that were put to a vote of the people were approved. Chances are that success rate isn’t much different today.

The truth is, voters are much more likely to vote for tax increases than elected officials. That’s because voters decide on new taxes in the privacy of a voting booth (or their homes in the case of a mail-in ballot election), while elected officials decide on new taxes by voting in public.

And voters don’t have to run for re-election after choosing to raise taxes. Elected officials do.

One reason attempts to mess with TABOR like Prop CC keep flopping is that TABOR isn’t just about taxes. It is also about control and power sharing. TABOR gives ordinary citizens a role in the exercise of one of government’s core powers — the power of the purse. The “Never TABOR” gang wants to take that power from them. As a result most people see proposals like Prop CC as a power grab as well as a tax increase.

(Prop CC supporters argue that the proposal isn’t a tax increase but just an authorization for government to keep any annual revenue increase above the amount TABOR allows it to keep. It’s a lawyer’s argument; it’s legally true, but the practical effect is a tax increase. If you don’t think so, try this thought experiment: If the federal government decided to keep your excess income tax withholding instead of refunding it to you, would you consider that a tax increase?)

Burness has a point when he says Colorado voters have been loath to pass new statewide taxes in the TABOR era — and the question of control may have something to do with it. Voters may feel they have more control over a tax increase for, say, their local school district than they do over a statewide tax increase of the same size for “education.” So they go with the local tax and say no to the state one.

What the voters have really been loath to do at the state level was approve new taxes for education. Prop CC was the fourth failed attempt in recent years to get the voters to increase taxes for the schools.

 One of the first questions voters ask themselves when deciding how to vote on a tax hike is “Will the new taxes do what they are intended to do?” — which is to improve educational outcomes for Colorado students?

Prop CC supporters seemed to assume that more money for K-12 education will by definition improve outcomes and that everyone knew this. So they made no attempt to show voters how the added revenue would improve the schools.

But the three previous smackdowns of school tax hikes suggest the voters have a lot of misgivings about the way the schools are doing their job and about whether teachers merit a pay increase. And about whether throwing more money at the schools will make a difference.

In the case of higher education, which is where a third of the Prop CC money was supposed to go, there are real questions about the worth of a university degree going forward and about whether the product is over-priced.

Another question voters ask themselves before voting on tax hikes is “Can I afford it?” That probably wasn’t much of an issue with Prop CC; the issue probably wasn’t so much, “Can I afford it,” as, “Is it worth it?”  

this opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.