teachers at the Capitol

Teachers rally for more state money in education during one of several events at the Colorado Capitol in 2018.

A Democratic majority on the Colorado House Finance Committee on Monday afternoon gave the first blessing to a pair of bills that would let voters decide the future of the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

House Bill 1257 would refer a question to the ballot in November that asks voters if they would prefer if part of their future tax refunds instead support schools and transportation.

The windfall would kick in during years when the state exceeds TABOR's spending cap, which is calculated on population growth and inflation.

Since voters passed TABOR in 1992, such refunds have gotten in the way of long-term investments to help keep up with growth, TABOR opponents contend.

The bill is sponsored by House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder and Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, with Sens. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and Lois Court, D-Denver.

The referred ballot question is accompanied by another piece of legislation, House Bill 1258, which goes into more detail on how the money would be spent. 

In years the state has excess revenue, its surplus would be divided equally between transportation projects, K-12 education and higher education.

Budget analysts think the change could allow the state to keep nearly $65 million in taxpayer refunds next year, but it would vary depending on the economy, and some years might yield nothing.

Though scrapping TABOR has been on Democrats' wish list for years, supporters of the latest effort pointed to its bipartisan support, starting with Priola. 

The House Democratic press office released a list of endorsers Monday morning that included such disparate economic interests as Children's Hospital Colorado and several chambers of commerce, as well as educational groups.

Loren Furman, the senior vice president for government affairs for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, said the state's chamber of commerce backs the move, because it would improve the business environment by improving transportation and education.

The legislature, year in and year out, struggles to reach agreement on funding those pillars of economic development.

"This is a pretty big deal and shouldn't be underestimated at all," Furman told the committee.

Becker told the committee Monday the practice called debrucing -- after TABOR author Douglas Bruce of Colorado Springs -- is really nothing new.

The House Democratic office said voters in 230 of the state’s 272 municipalities have opted to let local government keep the excess revenue for local projects. Fifty-one of the state's 64 counties have done the same, at some juncture, along with all but four of Colorado's 178 school districts.

"I think this is a common-sense first step in helping addressing some long-standing needs in this state," Becker told the Finance Committee. "I don't think it's a cure-all or final step to addressing some of the needs that our transportation system has, or K-12, or higher-ed."

Supporters say TABOR has hobbled the prosperous state's ability to meet the basic needs of its growth.

"Despite having one of the strongest economies in the country, Colorado's state investment in public schools consistently ranks at the bottom of the nation," said Jennifer Walmer, the state director for Democrats for Education Reform and New York-based Education Reform Now.

Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, said transportation and education were great needs for the state, but it would be a difficult sell to voters when the existing state budget includes so many "wants" that politicians have added in.

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