The Colorado General Assembly approved on Monday a measure that will ask voters to forego part of their TABOR refunds in exchange for providing tax relief to property owners.

Republicans — angered by what they described as the bill's attempt to bribe Coloradans to vote for the ballot measure — walked out of the House chambers in protest and refused to vote on Senate Bill 303.

The bill passed that chamber on a vote of 46-0, with 19 excused. It was then approved in the Senate on a 23-12 party-line vote, and now heads to the governor. 

Senate Bill 303 would ask voters this November for permission to raise what's called the Referendum C cap by 1% and keep that additional revenue for a 10-year period. That would generate about $167 million per year, which, in turn, would be funneled to local governments to hold them harmless from reductions in property tax revenue.

The action is Democrats' response to skyrocketing property taxes, due in part to the voter-backed repeal of the Gallagher Amendment in 2020 and rising home values, with some counties reporting increases of 50%, raising worries that many, particularly older Coloradans on fixed income, would get priced out of their homes. 

As introduced, SB 303 offered no provisions for holding harmless renters, who make about 40% of Coloradans, leading to sharp criticism the Democrat-backed property tax plan effectively takes money away from renters — on average by about $46 per taxpayer — and give that money to homeowners and commercial property owners. 

However, during Sunday's session, Democrats sweetened the pot — and not for the last time — for renters by adding an amendment that would divert $20 million from the TABOR surplus that will also go to local governments to a housing development grant fund.

The fund would then be used to reduce the amount of property taxes "paid as a portion of a tenant's rent."

The bill also diverts some of that TABOR surplus to the state education fund, which covers the state share of K-12 education.

The House began its final debate on the bill, which gave Republicans the opportunity to ask for the 63-page measure to be read at length. House Democrats than put off the final vote for hours while sponsors worked out additional amendments. 

SB 303 had been amended on Monday prior to the final vote. Normally, third reading amendments are intended to make technical corrections, but the bill's Democratic sponsors went beyond that — with a change intended to sweeten the pot further in an effort to persuade voters to approve Proposition HH.

That amendment hiked the valuation reduction from $40,000 to $50,000.

Assistant Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, R-Colorado Springs, said the General Assembly can lower the state assessment rates at any time.

"We chose not to," she said.

Local governments rely, sometimes also exclusively, on property taxes, and yet, she added, "Do you know who wasn't at the table for this conversation? Local governments." 

The carve-out, she argued, is meant to buy votes.

Republicans also pushed for a third-reading amendment, but Democrats denied them permission to offer it.

But it was the second amendment from co-sponsor Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, that resulted in Republicans refusing to vote both on the permission to allow for the more substantive changes and on the amendment itself. All 19 Republicans were marked as "excused with protest." 

The amendment, as well as the previous one, would ensure fire districts got their share of the property tax backfill.

And with the final vote on tap, Republicans walked out. All 19 were marked as "absent" rather than "excused."

The Republican caucus then gathered on the west side of the Capitol and waited for the final vote to take place.

A frustrated House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, told reporters they left because they've been silenced.

"(SB 303) is a big scheme that the governor waited until the last minutes of session to pull this sort of big legislation," he said.

He added the final straw was that House Democrats were allowed to introduce their amendments but Republicans were denied.

"We're just done with how they have jammed this agenda through. They have two thirds of majority and they've used more rules than they've ever used before in the history of this state," he said. "We don't know what we can do to get the voices of our people heard. We're sad for the people of Colorado that are about to get the biggest tax increase in their life."

"Our votes don't matter," he said.

SB 303 then headed back to the Senate for review of House amendments.

The last time a walkout occurred was likely in 2003, when Senate Democrats refused to vote on a congressional redistricting bill. The Senate at that time was 18-17 in favor of Republicans; 13 Democrats were marked as "excused," with another four marked as "present." 

Earlier in the day Monday, the Senate gave its final approval to House Bill 1311, the accompanying measure that was rushed through the General Assembly in its final three days, and which intends to equalize TABOR refunds.

Under the measure, single taxpayers would receive $661 refunds; joint filers, $1,322.

It would replace the state's current six-tiered sales tax refund, but would only go into effect if voters approve Proposition HH, the provisions of SB 303.

Republicans pointed out that the state can enact those changes without making it contingent on voter approval.  

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