Returning to a discussion of TABOR incorporates elements of Dante’s speculations regarding the blazing circles of hell. This recursive debate forces us to consider the fiscal and policy consequences that have emerged from Doug Bruce’s 1992 fever dream of shrinking government to a size best suited for a sparsely populated frontier. No one has yet devised a successful escape-room strategy.
At the state level, requests to voters for their approval of tax hikes has produced a dismal record of failure. Only a handful of sin taxes have passed, penalizing smokers of tobacco and more recently marijuana. Taxes for schools and roads, not so much. TABOR reform advocates are now directing their attention to who should be providing additional revenues. Polls show broad support for requiring the rich to contribute more.
The Hebrew God confined his directives to just 10 commandments. TABOR runs more than 4,000 words and skewers a myriad of Bruce’s pet policy peeves, forbidding everything from real estate transfer taxes to the precise wording of ballot questions. We can safely assume any divine inspiration he may have enjoyed was instilled by a prolix and relatively minor deity.
Nonetheless, TABOR enthusiasts urge us to understand Colorado’s recent economic prosperity as generated exclusively by the provisions inserted into the state’s constitution at the behest of a policy prophet transplanted from California. Critics have wrestled with how to repeal his civic blessings for a quarter century, during which the economic character of Colorado has radically changed — not to mention impacts from a rapidly burgeoning population and its attendant pressure on our roads, schools, water supplies and environment.
One such proposal is to replace Colorado’s flat and frozen income tax with a graduated schedule of rates that requires the wealthiest among us to pay higher rates on their marginal earnings. Although voters tell pollsters this is a mechanism they would like Colorado to implement, the question barely secured a third of their votes when it was included as a support for public education. It took a constitutional amendment to authorize the graduated federal income tax in 1913.
The argument proffered on behalf of a graduated income tax was originally premised on a principle linked with the ability to pay. Ability and willingness, however, have proven entirely different things. A more persuasive and 21st century argument might be that those who receive the greatest financial benefit from our current economic and political arrangements have an equivalent moral responsibility to pay back proportionately more in taxes. This logic may be intellectually unassailable but the visceral sense of who actually receives the most from government apparently hinges on your point of view.
It seems obvious that when 100% of the growth in the American economy is being transferred to just 1% of the population, as it has been over the past decade, then that 1% should be treated as the true beneficiary of our political economy. Not necessarily, it turns out.
There is a competing narrative asserting the real “lucky duckies” are those receiving food stamps, MEDICAID and disability payments. These supports are not viewed as indicators of economic desperation, but as unearned benefits profligately distributed to the undeserving.
I am reminded of the wealthy matron who once admonished me, “Honey, I don’t use anything from government. Why should I pay for it?” As it turns out, even a steeply graduated state income tax won’t raise nearly as much money as the majority believes it will. A few additional billions raised each year in a state with a $30 billion-dollar annual budget would be a help, not a solution. It will take far more to fill our potholes, improve mobility, hire and retain teachers, keep college tuition affordable and provide a safe, comfortable quality of life. This means, TABOR or no TABOR, Colorado’s prosperous population should assign more of its earnings to our public purse.
This is not an easy sell. After decades of complaint about government waste (negligible), graft (virtually non-existent), fraud (also negligible) and abuse (nagging insistence on clean air and water), public confidence in bureaucrats and elected officials is dismal. Several years ago, when PERA pension benefits were under assault at the legislature I participated in focus groups to test public sentiment toward public pensions. In Colorado Springs I was pleasantly surprised to find considerable support for public employee benefits among comfortably retired federal and military employees participating in the sessions.
In each group, however, there were a few who loudly objected to the background briefing that described Colorado’s fiscal position. “Don’t try and tell me we live in a low-tax state,” objected one retired Army general. Frequent repetition of charges of incompetence has done its work.
TABOR opponents are prone to warn us there is a fiscal cliff that awaits us — perhaps it will prove a stone wall.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.