Even if you don’t move in Penn Pfiffner’s center-right political circles, you’re probably familiar with his name as the media’s go-to guy for comment on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights whenever it comes up in the news. And it comes up a lot, of course.
The groundbreaking taxing and spending limits — venerated by some and vilified by others — have been stirring debate ever since being enacted into Colorado’s Constitution by voters in 1992. Better known by its acronym TABOR, the constitutional provision has prompted lawsuits, legislation and more ballot issues by wide-ranging interests hoping to elude or at least ease its restraints on state and local budgets.
The perennial back-and-forth over TABOR also spawned the TABOR Foundation, which, along with its advocacy counterpart the TABOR Committee, emerged with the help of Pfiffner and other resolute TABOR supporters to stand up for the policy.
Pfiffner, who served as a Republican state representative from Lakewood in the 1990s, has become as distinctive a voice for TABOR over the years as he has for the advocacy of limited government in general.
He expounds on both of those endeavors and more — as always, in his characteristically eloquent and respectful way — in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: Let’s start with a recent headline. The state Supreme Court ruled June 17 that a pending ballot proposal to repeal TABOR in its entirety may proceed — despite a constitutional “single-subject” stipulation on ballot issues that was long believed to have blocked precisely such an all-in-one-shot repeal.
In a public statement from the TABOR Foundation condemning the ruling, you said, “The court has become dangerously unmoored from the clear meaning of the state constitution.” The statement also said the court ”appears to take sides.”
Recap for us what was fundamentally at issue in the case before court — and why you feel the court missed the mark.
Penn Pfiffner: The recent direction of the Colorado courts on constitutional matters should trouble any citizen. Our American system relies on an honest judicial branch to impartially interpret the law. We have seen an absolutely consistent antipathy from the courts towards the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
It’s an understatement to say that the justices from trial level to the Colorado Supreme Court have appeared to argue backwards from predetermined outcomes. Some of the arguments appeared to me to be even juvenile, like an adolescent trying too hard to argue the impossible.
The central finding in the Bridge Enterprise case that the TABOR Foundation brought is an example. Years from now, I surmise historians of Colorado’s system will be amazed and disgusted that it became so partisan during these recent years. Good, experienced attorneys today are urging the TABOR Foundation not to bring any more constitutional issues to the judicial branch — it’s that futile, and all that we end up with is setting bad precedent. In the case you raise, the court explicitly threw out a generation of precedent. It’s as if they never opened the section on TABOR to read all the different pieces in this comprehensive constitutional measure.
A dissent from the bench pointed out that some activist could now substitute Colorado’s extensive “Bill of Rights” for “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (in a ballot proposal) and in one vote overturn all citizen protections. A leftist court looks ready to use its personal political views to put a thumb on the scales of justice.
- Chairs the board of directors for the TABOR Foundation and the TABOR Committee, since 2009. The two entities, respectively, educate and advocate on behalf of TABOR.
- Owner, Construction Economics LLC, since 1983; provides financial and managerial consulting to architects, engineers and contractors.
- Senior fellow in fiscal policy at the Denver-based Independence Institute, 2001-2014.
- Served as a Republican state representative from Jefferson County in the Colorado House, 1993-2001.
- Current board member and past president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers.
- Chaired "Too Taxing for Colorado," an issue committee to defeat the unsuccessful Proposition 103 tax increase on the 2011 statewide ballot.
- Holds a master's degree in finance from the University of Colorado Denver and bachelor's degrees in economics and political science from CU Boulder.
CP: Give us your elevator speech on TABOR’s role, and value, in our state constitution.
Pfiffner: The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is modest in its objectives. It does not cut back existing district budgets. It only slows down the pace at which governments grow. It’s like putting a speed limiter on a powerful train that otherwise could run dangerously too fast. TABOR keeps the citizen in charge, encourages people to be more involved in public decisions, is essentially not in effect during recessions, and includes good-government reforms like better election provisions and establishing emergency funds.
TABOR makes government conform to the consent of the governed. It slows the provision of ever-larger amounts of funding to those who want to force more activity into the public sector and steal freedom and funding from families, businesses and individuals.
CP: Why do you believe concerted opposition to TABOR persists after more than two decades, and where does that opposition come from?
Pfiffner: How people perceive TABOR provides excellent insight into how they view the nature and justification for government. The widely held perspective on the left is that government is mankind’s only hope to create a better, kinder society, and we need only select the right experts to shepherd us. Those libertarians and conservatives who support TABOR would most frequently turn that on its head. George Washington identified it: “Government is not eloquence, it is not reason. It is force.”
America is exceptional because all its levels of government were created to protect the rights of the individual that already exist and to be servants of the people. This contrasts with the current theory that governments should shape and control behavior and guide the masses.
Americans historically have been very skeptical about using power to force people. They know that government programs fail, are wasteful and frequently end up hurting the people they’re meant to help. In contrast, free people in the private sector are successful when they find ways to create value for others. Concepts in the private sector must prove themselves acceptable to the consumer, and capitalism allows for people to be free to experiment and to be flexible and creative in their efforts. A free-market system provides incentives to increase the general wealth while individuals take care of themselves. Freedom is moral — and it works.
CP: During your years in the legislature, you came to be viewed as a member of the GOP’s “libertarian” wing; indeed, back in the 1980s, you even served as Libertarian Party state chair for a time. How would you characterize your politics, and how did you first come to embrace that world view?
Pfiffner: I start with a deep, fundamental respect for the individual. To enjoy the wonderful liberty I have (or should have), I must respect your equal rights. I have studied free-market economics for over a half-century and observed that people thrive in freedom and its organic organization of capitalism.
Once the world wondered how it possibly could keep the babies in China from starving under communism. Simple redistribution would have left them starving. But once that country relaxed a little bit of its authoritarian, collectivist system to allow some private property, permit some markets to develop and profits to materialize, its people moved themselves from poverty. Socialism and the welfare state come with chains and failure.
While in office, I was always clear that I was a libertarian Republican. I strove to adhere to my principles, to be consistent about freedom and the intelligent answers that it brings. When issues had gray areas so I could not determine immediately the right position, there were three filters I used to know how to vote: Did the measure support and further individual liberty? Did it honor and endorse personal responsibility rather than try to socialize it, and did it keep government to its limited and proper role?
Elected office demands employment of wisdom and care. How do you fit principle into the real-life situation so that you end up where citizens need to be without damaging society and while avoiding harm to individuals? That nuanced, humble approach has been missing in our discourse for a long time.
CP: Where do you believe Colorado is headed politically in the wake of last fall’s election? At the moment, the state seems a far cry from the hotbed of limited-government advocacy that it was in the 1990s. Will the pendulum swing back, or has Colorado’s explosive growth forever changed its political chemistry?
Pfiffner: Colorado lurched dramatically to the left, and it may make a good barometer of things to come nationally. A bloated federal government has taken on roles and responsibilities that belong instead with state governments or with charities, families, churches and other institutions. The system of centralized, bureaucratized, oppressive government is not working and it’s not getting better. Those other institutions could do better.
My young grandson was born owing $65,000 for his portion of the national debt. The government’s promise of entitlements is unsustainable, and burdens that toddler with nearly $375,000 in debt. That’s unconscionable.
As a people we are complacent today about the future, still spending recklessly. America has been so successful that we probably will be able to continue for another generation. Rather than mindlessly head toward implosion, we should act now to recover a dynamic, live-and-let-live society.
CP: You have been a stalwart for a host of center-right causes over the decades; you’ve been a steady and unflinching presence on Colorado’s political radar. It no doubt has consumed a lot of your productive life to date. What has kept you at it? Any regrets?
Pfiffner: Thank you for that recognition. Do the right thing as you are given to understand what’s right because the cause is just and you can’t walk away from your duty. At this point in my life, however, I have to assess whether it was worth it. There was a huge opportunity lost to earn a lot more income, to spend more time with my wife and our three kids, and it left too little time for spiritual and personal reflection.
Yet today, with only one statewide exception, every politician in every government office for my home is a leftist, some of them extreme, who all are sure they know how to run our lives better than we do. It seems I did not make enough of a difference. After nearly four decades of work in the freedom movement, the hard reality is that today as I espouse these liberty-loving views, I could not again be elected to office.
CP: Voices across the political spectrum, in Colorado and nationally, have bemoaned what they say is the decline of civil discourse in American politics. Your take?
Pfiffner: We all should be very worried about the tone of debate in our country. The conflict is a symptom, however, not a primary cause. Learn from the one area in America where there is little disharmony. The reason you and I don’t disagree over where you go to church, or even if you go at all, is that is none of anyone else’s business. Yet, if we were to politicize the decision of which churches get funding and how much, our community would be outraged by whatever decision is made. Horrible wars were fought over religion because the powerful decided for everyone. The biggest external threat our country faces comes from people who want us to worship as they do and will use force to try to make it so.
The easiest way to bring harmony to a community is to remove decisions from the political domain and return them to the private sector, where people interact in a voluntary environment.