Love him or hate him, Doug Bruce is a Colorado Springs original.
Since he wrote the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights in 1992, Bruce has been its biggest defender and advocate. He’s fought for it while serving on the El Paso County Board of Commissioners and in the state House of Representatives. He continued to fight for it while serving two prison stints related to tax filings, financial disclosures and probation violations.
Is Bruce an anti-tax hero and direct democracy crusader, or a convicted tax felon who has single-handedly starved state government of much-needed funds to fix roads and schools?
In coming weeks, voters across the state get to decide which Bruce is the real Bruce.
TABOR, as the state constitutional amendment is called, puts a cap on government spending, based on a formula of inflation and population growth, then directs the state to refund money to taxpayers when income exceeds the cap.
This year, in booming economic times, the state brought in $310 million above the cap and expects to surpass it by $342 million next year, according to the Colorado Legislative Council, the nonpartisan arm of the General Assembly that researches the impact of proposed laws.
On the ballot Nov. 5 will be Proposition CC, which would permanently remove the TABOR revenue cap, freeing up all the excess money to be spent on transportation and education rather than refunding it to taxpayers. It would begin to “de-Bruce” our state spending system, in other words.
Want to know more? Joey Bunch, lead reporter for Colorado Politics, and KOAA’s Andy Koen will be moderating a debate on the pros and cons of Bruce’s baby and Prop CC on Tuesday at The Penrose House Garden Pavilion in Colorado Springs. The debate from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. will be followed by a reception with hors d'oeuvres and beverages.
KOAA News5, The Gazette, and El Pomar Foundation's Forum for Civic Advancement are hosting the debate between Colorado House Speaker Kathleen Collins Becker and Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action.
Opponents of Prop CC call it a con job. As Bunch puts it, "Proposition CC has been an under-the-radar broadside to what conservatives believe about TABOR. On one hand, it seems like a tax hike to take away a tax break, and losing that spending cap takes the brakes off government spending. On the other hand, TABOR's greatest strength is direct democracy for the people to decide tax issues. On Nov. 5, that's exactly what they'll do."
Proponents say Bruce’s cap has held the state back. A booming Colorado has taken on many more responsibilities than it had 27 years ago, but TABOR keeps the state budget from growing with the economy. As a result, they say, core public services such as K-12 schools, transportation and higher education have suffered.
"With support from voters, Prop CC will finally allow the state to begin fixing things," Gov. Jared Polis said at the official launch of the pro-Prop CC campaign. "If you're frustrated about traffic and your commute and potholes, vote yes on CC.
"If you're tired of kids getting shortchanged in schools, vote yes on CC. If you're tired of the cost of community college and college getting further and further out of reach, vote yes on CC."
So who’s right?
"So far, both sides have laid out their cases about whether they have faith in the government to invest in education and transportation, though the Legislature has a sketchy track record of doing that, or whether it's smart to invest in public infrastructure during good economic times,” said Bunch. “A lot of voters will choose to invest the few dollars they'd get in prosperous years in their own families."
At the moment, Coloradans appear inclined to de-Bruce and let the state keep TABOR tax refunds and spend the extra money on education and transportation, according to a poll released recently by the Republican firm Magellan Strategies.
The survey of 500 likely voters found 54% said they would vote yes on Proposition CC after a pollster read them the ballot language. Conducted by phone and online, it found that 30% would vote no and 15% were undecided.
But Bruce's legacy is unlikely to end there.
"No matter what happens on Nov. 5, TABOR will be a flashpoint for years to come,” adds Bunch. “If it passes, full repeal won't be far behind. If it fails, full repeal won't be far behind. TABOR has made too many political friends and enemies for too long, and in politics there's always a next fight."
Vince Bzdek is editor-at-large for Colorado Politics and editor of its parent newspaper, The Gazette of Colorado Springs.