Rep. Dave Williams

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, argues against authorizing a November ballot initiative to ask voters to give up their future tax refunds from any surplus revenue generated by the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. The measure passed on a voice vote Friday afternoon. 

The Colorado House gave initial passage Friday afternoon to a bill that would ask voters to forever give up their refunds under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

TABOR, as it's called, has been in the state constitution since 1992, when Colorado voters put it there to curb the growth in government and taxes.

The bill passed on a voice vote Friday night, so it still must pass a recorded vote in the House before it goes to the Senate to start over and pass by the end of the legislative session on May 3.

Democrats, who are backing the proposal, have the majority in both chambers.

That didn't stop Republicans from putting up a verbal fight over the GOP-favored limit on government growth.

TABOR demands voters approve any tax increase and imposes a spending cap that grows only with population and inflation. When that spending cap is exceeded, taxpayers get the surplus in their tax refunds or cuts in their cost to use state services.

House Bill 1257 would refer a question to the November ballot about whether the state can keep the refund as long as it goes to education and transportation. 

"This cap prevents the state from making the type of long-term investments Coloradans care deeply about -- our public education system, our highways, our higher education system, transportation, healthcare, etc.," said Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, one of the bill's sponsors.

She said that when economic times are good, the state should make investment with tax revenue to hedge against when times are bad.

Coloradans would still be allowed to vote on tax increases and spending policy changes that affect long-term debt called for in TABOR.

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, said no other state has a limit like TABOR, "because it doesn't make sense to put in your constitution that the state is prohibited from growing with the economy. They can grow with population plus inflation but not grow when the economy grows."

House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock urged a strong no vote.

"Let's be very clear what's happening here," he said. "You get to vote one time, which will take away all your future consent on whether or not you're actually able to retain your tax refunds. That's not true consent."

He added, "It's not our money. It's the taxpayers' money."

Republicans tried a series of amendments Friday, which the Democratic majority shot down.

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, tried to get in amendments that would "clearly inform the voters what we're doing" in unraveling TABOR refunds forever with their vote this year.

"There shouldn't be any reason why we don't want to tell the voters exactly what's happening," he said.

Democrats countered that the bill is clear enough because the ballot question would say "annual" refunds.

Williams said wrecking TABOR was unnecessary, that lawmakers needed to be more disciplined in spending tax money and in setting priorities.

"We're not limiting our growth," he said. "We're not limiting ourselves. When so many people are living paycheck to paycheck, and they're having a tough time to put food on their table and to make ends meet, we're asking, 'Hey, give us more of your money that you're entitled to.' That's selfish."

Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, noted that the state budget grew 74 percent during the Hickenlooper administration to a proposed $32 billion this year.

"If we can't fund roads, bridges and schools right now, I'm not sure what confidence the people of Colorado will have in us if we keep a little bit more of their money that we will then, magically, be able to fund roads, bridges and schools properly," he said.

Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, pointed to the state's population growth, the effects of the last recession and the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which swelled the state money with federal dollars to pay to provide healthcare insurance to more Coloradans.

He said voters have shot down previous ballot questions for new spending on schools and transportation, because they want the state to do it with existing resources.

"We cannot respond to that directive from the voters to make those investments within existing resources unless we can actually predictably retain and budget existing resources that flow to the state pursuant to existing tax law," Weissman said.  

The Colorado chapter of the conservative Americans for Prosperity issued a statement after the vote Friday night. The organization said the real cost to taxpayers this year would be $350 million, not $95 million.

“This bill would gut our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, one of Colorado’s most powerful tools against government overreach, and allow the government to take money that rightfully belongs to taxpayers," state director Jesse Mallory stated. 

"TABOR has been a main driver of our state’s impressive economic growth, and passing this bill would endanger our state’s economic health.”

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