The Macarena

Participants and fans in the Summer Paralympics Games in Atlanta, Georgia, dance the Macarena during open ceremonies on Aug. 16, 1996.

We do a lot of things in this state and nation that don’t make much sense. We pay for mental health at the highest possible price by way of hospitals and jails, rather than paying less for the obvious ounces of prevention.

We use highways as a shuttlecock in political badminton to chase after failed ideas on transit. We allow the healthcare industry to charge us pretty much anything it would like for whatever it wants to sell us. 

But when it comes to popular, dizzying and inexplicable, Colorado tax policy is the fiscal Macarena. 

I’ll spare you a diatribe on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. If you’re reading Colorado Politics and Insights, then I assume you know all about TABOR.  You don't pick up the sports page without knowing what a home run is.

Since 1992, when voters wrote TABOR into the state constitution, Coloradans have been allowed to decide on tax increases and other major financial decisions, an honor delegated to legislatures in most states.

The formula ties growth in population and tax revenue to the size of government.

It works like this. Say, that one year population grows by 2% and inflation grows by 1%. That means that most of the state budget can grow by 3%. And you thought economics was complicated. 

Soapy Smith got it. The con man landed in Denver in 1879 and rose to fame in flimflams and city politics.

If you make it sound easy enough, people think they're smarter than they are, and a person full of himself is the first to empty his pockets for what he believes to be a sure thing.

There are no sure things in table games or fiscal policy.

TABOR, at the same time, creates a mishmash of unintended and sometimes intended consequences for schools, social programs and long-term investment to prepare for growth.

Those long-term investments tend to be a glossy coat of paint on the same old liberal spending policies we know too well in this state.

Many of those investments are good, some are bad, and some are so laden with doublespeak that if you're confused enough you'll support something you don’t. There's a Colorado taxpayer born every minute.

Hey, Macarena!

Politics and policy go hand in hand.

In this state, the only way we can talk taxes is at the ballot box, decided by the will of engaged and the deep pockets of interests out to inspire such will.

The inspiration machine is gearing up. In Colorado in odd-numbered years — when there are no state or federal elections — voters decide issues related to TABOR, including borrowing big bucks.

We've waited a couple of years now to decide on the state legislature's request to invest in transportation by borrowing $1.3 billion with a pay back of $1.9 billion in 20 years, or about the terms you'd get on a Discover card, I think.

TABOR drove the Democratic-led legislature to refer the measure to the 2019 ballot, but lawmakers tabled it, then said voters might decide it this year, instead.

Nix that. There'll be no vote on it in November, because Gov. Jared Polis inked Senate Bill 260 in June to put $5.4 billion into transportation powered by $4.9 billion in new fees you didn't vote on.

Remember how I said Coloradans get to decide taxes? Well, they don't get to decide fees, even though they're practically the same thing and come from exactly the same place, your wallet.

My friend Michael Fields at Colorado Rising State Action wised up to this maneuver and led the relatively easy passage of Proposition 117 last year. That measure gave the public the right to vote on any fees that bring in $100 million in its first five years.

Not to be outmaneuvered, legislators this year divided up the fees into enough separate pots — electric vehicles, "clean" transit, clean-air programs, electric fleet conversion and an enterprise for bridges — that each mathematically fell within $100 million, bypassing a vote. 

I was told that was not on purpose. I was also once told Santa Claus would come down a chimney we didn't own, too.

Dale a tu cuerpo alegría, Macarena.

We'll do the state budget shimmy again this November. The odds are good most of us will choose to pay less.

Fields is leading Initiative 19 to provide oversight on how the governor and attorney general unilaterally dish out tax dollars in the millions, and occasionally billions.

The constitutional change will need at least 55% to pass, another quirk of the Colorado tax system.

Initiative 27, another ballot question that appears likely, would cut tax assessment rates by 9% for residential and non-residential property. Moreover, it would put $25 million into the state's homestead exemption program that cuts a break to seniors and disabled veterans. But since it changes state law, it needs just 50% or better to become law.

It still affects TABOR, however, because the homestead money would come out from the TABOR spending cap.

Dizzy, yet? Colorado tax policy reminds me of a joke I heard once.

A warden visited death row and asked two condemned men if they had a final request. One said, "I'd like to hear the Macarena one last time." The other said, "Can you execute me first?"

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