Colorado Legislature Rotunda

As viewed through a fisheye lens, visitors head up the stairs in the rotunda in the state Capitol on May 2, 2019. State lawmakers wrapped up its regular session the next day.

From doctors to deliveries and the comings and goings of tax rates on property, it was a dizzying session for dollars flowing into and out of the Colorado state Capitol.

As always, the government gives and the government takes away. Redistribution is the American way.

I’ve been doing this for decades, and I’ve never seen anything like 2021 when it came to the exercising of a checkbook.

Lawmakers handed out $3.9 billion in federal stimulus money and another $800 million in state recovery aid, which is about 15% of what the legislature would spend in a normal year’s budget, simply as a coronavirus bonus.

Those who use the roads for all kinds of reasons will have to pay more to cover a $5.3 billion transportation package. Coloradans will pony up a little extra for gasoline, electric vehicle registration, deliveries and ride-sharing services, a little here and a little there.

A proposed ballot question in November that could have given home and business owners a $1 billion break on their property taxes, as values soar, was complicated and watered down by Senate Bill 293, which went down to the last days of the session.

Republicans got a pretty good tax deal, if you assume the November tax cut wouldn't have made the ballot, then wouldn't have passed. It's hard to vote against a tax cut, however.

Some relief is better than none.

Low-income Coloradans will catch some tax breaks from the Tax Fairness for Coloradans package, House Bill 1311  and House Bill 1312

My friend Carol Hedges, the executive director over at the Colorado Fiscal Institute, said this session delivered the largest tax reforms this state has seen in decades. 

"For too long, our state tax system has been written by a handful of wealthy and powerful people and corporations, while working people and families — especially Black and brown Coloradans — pay a higher share of their income in taxes," she said.

The package more than doubled the state earned income tax credit, “finally” funded the state child tax credit, Democrats said, and delivered a spike in the number of small businesses to be exempt from paying the business personal property tax, the levy paid on land and buildings, as well as inventory and operations.

That’s the good news. The bad news, as usual, is the money has to come from somewhere.

House Bill 1311 caps itemized income tax deductions for those who earn $400,000 or more a year at $30,000 for individual filers and $60,000 for joint returns. That's expected to help raise up to $60 million annually by its third year. 

House Bill 1312 will eventually could lift $145 million a year from the pockets of Colorado biggest industries: insurance, oil and gas and large retailers by taking a bite out of their tax breaks.

Take insurance companies for example: to qualify for an established tax break, they would have to maintain a growing percentage of the company’s workforce in Colorado, which allows companies to cut its premium taxes in half. This year’s legislation, then, creates a standard to qualify.

"Closing wasteful loopholes that aren't creating jobs or growing the economy and instead using our tax code to invest in workers and families is a huge win for Colorado,” explained one of my go-to financial advisers, Scott Wasserman, president of the left-leaning Bell Policy Center and a former policy adviser to then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Another of my friends, Loren Furman, the legislative brains and brawn for the Colorado Chamber, called it a frustrating session from a business perspective.

The Democrats have had three sessions in power, and used this one in the shadow of the pandemic and a sagging economy to go after economic drivers, perhaps the right plan at the wrong time.

Businesses chafed against Senate bills 176 (workplace discrimination rules), 200 (vague but aggressive environmental enforcement), 197 (worker's compensation evaluations) and 175 (the new prescription affordability board), plus House Bill 1232 (formerly known as the public option) "and many others," Loren told me Tuesday.

The governor's priorities, a year out from his reelection, put pressure on members of his party, I heard from sources on the right and left this week.

Fast-moving amendments combined and rewrote legislation that had been in the works for months, before supporters and, especially, opponents could react. To say this session lacked transparency behind negotiations is akin to saying paint needs to dry; opinion isn't a factor, when the result speaks for itself.

One session aside, Loren raised a worrisome point.

"The legislative process is indeed changing, and many who represent public- and private-sector employers who are at the Capitol every day are very concerned about this shift," she told me in a text I interpreted as weary.

Democrats see the hoi polloi in their corner, flagging an April poll for the press on Tuesday when they crowed about their tax reform package. 

Colorado-based Keating Research’s findings suggested more than 73% of likely Colorado voters favored cutting “loopholes” for corporations and rich people: 91% of Democrats, 75% of unaffiliated voters and 48% of Republicans.

Very few people consider themselves rich, however, or their tax breaks they receive to be loopholes. Moreover, if you ask me if I’d like to pay less while a fat cat picks up the difference, my answer is always yes.

Editor's note: This story was updated to note House Bill 1311 is expected to ratchet up over three years, bringing in about four times what it will the first year.

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