KC Becker

Colorado state House Speaker KC Becker delivers her opening-day speech on Jan. 4, 2019.

Colorado's latest "de-Brucing" proposal -- a measure that would let the state spend excess tax revenue that otherwise would be refunded under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights -- doesn't go down the same road as its 2005 predecessor.

The earlier measure was Referendum C, a five-year reprieve from TABOR's spending caps that Colorado voters approved 14 years ago.

One of the knocks against Ref C was that the revenue it freed up never really went to its identified purposes: health care, public education, roads and bridges, and fire and police pensions. Instead, the revenue -- from individual and corporate income and sales tax -- went into the general fund and wasn't specifically set aside for those purposes.

On the flip side, however, the lack of a mandate about where the money was supposed to go may have spared the state much more painful budget cuts when the Great Recession hit three years after the measure passed.

Now comes House Bill 1258, introduced Wednesday by Speaker of the House KC Becker of Boulder and a long list of cosponsors.

Becker told Colorado Politics Thursday that the bill was set up in part to address one of the complaints lodged against Ref C, that it didn't really go where voters were told.

"We've heard loud and clear is people want to know that you're going to follow through on where the money is spent," she said. "At least in the near term, we don't think it's a lot of money. It's not like we're creating new programs. It's for core government functions. It's a responsible allocation about money; we're being clear about where the money is going and there will be an annual audit."

HB 1258, if passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Jared Polis, will appear on the November 2019 ballot.

Under the measure, any revenue that would otherwise go to taxpayer refunds under TABOR would instead be specifically directed toward higher education, public education and transportation.

The measure orders one-third of those dollars into the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF), with at least 10 percent of those dollars dedicated to transit. Another 22 percent would go to counties and 18 percent to cities and incorporated towns for their road and bridge projects. The rest would go to the state highway fund, which is tapped by the Colorado Department of Transportation for its projects.

A "general fund exempt account" set up under Ref C will hold the other two-thirds, which will be appropriated to public schools for one-time purposes. The bill suggests it could go to attract and retain educators, improve teacher training or books and technology for student learning. School districts are not allowed to bank those dollars in their reserve accounts. 

The bill doesn't dictate how higher education should use its extra funds.

There's a year lag between when the dollars come in and when they go out to their designated purposes. That lag time gives the state controller time to prepare a financial report that will outline the amount of money coming in over and above the state's TABOR revenue limits, a requirement similar to one in the 2005 measure.

How much would be available varies depending on which revenue forecast you look at. One from Legislative Council economists estimated at one time that as much as $350 million could be available in 2019-20 and nothing after that. Another estimate, from the governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting, more or less agreed with the first-year numbers but indicated there could be as much as $700 million available the following year.

Another big difference between Ref C and House Bill 1258: The latter would be permanent. The 2005 measure was a five-year timeout that allowed the state to keep all excess revenue.

"There's a lot of support for the bill, and those who will fund the campaign say 'if we're going to do this we don't want to do this again in 10 years,'" Becker said. She wasn't quite ready to say who those supporters are, but said that should come out in the next week.

A second measure, House Bill 1257, is the one that will ask voters to approve the plans laid out in HB 1258. 

Becker told Colorado Politics last month she sought simple language. As laid out in HB 1257, the ballot measure says that "without raising taxes and to better fund public schools, higher education and roads, bridges and transit, ... may the state keep and spend all the revenue it annually collects after June 30, 2018 but is not currently allowed to keep and spend under Colorado law?"

The measure also states that there would be an annual independent audit that shows how the retained revenues will be spent, another accountability provision that Referendum C lacked.

There's one other, albeit small, difference between 2005's Ref C and the 2019 measure, and that's the state's (and General Assembly's) political climate. In 2005, Democrats controlled the House and Senate, with Republican Gov. Bill Owens in the governor's mansion.

House Bill 05-1194 had mostly Democratic sponsors, but plenty of Republicans signed up, too. That included its co-prime sponsor in the Senate -- Sen. Steve Johnson of Fort Collins -- and eventually, six other Republican senators signed on. It was a little less bipartisan in the House, with two Republicans among the bill's 36 eventual co-sponsors. 

The House sponsor of Ref C's legislation in 2005 was Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, a Denver Democrat.

Outside the General Assembly, the measure had the buy-in from Owens, a decision that may cost him a future political career, as well as for his Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, who also backed Ref C and who tried to run for governor in 2010 but was viewed as not conservative enough.

The 2019 measures both have as a prime co-sponsor Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson, although he is to date the only Republican listed on the measures. 

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