Since Colorado voters pasted the TABOR amendment that steers spending and revenues into our state constitution in 1992, the myth of its sacrosanct power has been embroidered each year. It is frequently viewed as the “third rail” of politics – attempt to tamper with it and you will surely die. However, only a slim majority approved Doug Bruce’s fourth attempt to handcuff government on an otherwise crowded ballot. While Bill Clinton won the presidential poll that year, Ross Perot’s message of budget rectitude scored its largest voter endorsement in Colorado.
Still, TABOR secured just a few more than 800,000 supporters. It seems likely half those voters are no longer registered for reasons of mortality, transiency or disinterest. In the meantime, Colorado’s electorate has nearly doubled. Consequently, those who might feel personally betrayed by a rollback or repeal of TABOR provisions is unlikely more than one voter in 10. Most of the remainder, many recent arrivals to the state, has only the fuzziest notion of what TABOR requires or how it works.
Nonetheless, former legislator Penn Pfiffner at the TABOR Foundation stands ready to file a lawsuit attacking the slightest hint of fiscal heresy. It goes without saying that his coterie of acolytes sincerely believes that Colorado’s robust economic health in recent years is directly attributable to TABOR’s restrictions on legislative exuberance. An equally ardent phalanx of critics views this relative prosperity as having occurred despite the hurdles placed in the path of responsive governance. Through a combination of voter waivers for the “de-Brucing” of collected revenues and the approval of new taxes at the local level, where nearly 90 percent of such referrals have proven successful; together with a byzantine set of statutory gimmicks, terminology redefinitions and “financial engineering” by the Legislature, TABOR has been repeatedly defanged for the past quarter century.
This is not to say there haven’t been winners and losers. Today’s state budget reflects a gradual yet significant rearrangement of budget priorities over the past 25 years. Because of TABOR’s interaction with the Gallagher Amendment, approved in 1981, which governs the apportionment of property tax burdens between residential and commercial owners, the limits of legislative legerdemain may have been reached. With the exception of sin taxes on tobacco and marijuana, neither the legislature nor the last four governors, three of them Democrats, have found the courage to send a statewide TABOR reform measure to voters. Educators, transportation contractors, graduated income tax advocates and others have periodically launched citizen initiatives. All have failed.
Several tax proposals return to the ballot in 2018 with revised appeals to shore up our public schools and fix our roads, as well as an expansive list of asks at the local level. In part, the statewide requests for tax increases constitute an effort to be the first across the finish line to capture the lion’s portion of what is perceived as a bounded voter tolerance for more costly government. This “beggar thy neighbor” competition has contributed to defeats in the recent past. If roads or schools can grab a billion or two from voters, what then will be the chances of relief for higher education or other programs? This has led to a political minuet of public civility among stakeholders followed by private efforts to sabotage one another with quiet appeals to their own constituencies. A vote for road funding becomes a vote against children in the classroom, or the reverse, depending on one’s priorities. And no one wins.
This pattern may be broken in November. The legitimacy of public needs is readily apparent. Amendment 23, which directed revenues to public education, has been circumvented with the “negative factor” – little more than a legislative IOU to Colorado’s school districts. Don’t hold your breath for those checks to arrive. Rural school boards, fire and ambulance services and most special districts are being systematically strangled by the Gallagher Amendment. And yes, our roads are falling apart, and the prospect of 21stcentury transit links along the Front Range and with our mountain resorts can only be envisioned under the influence of an industrial-sized dose of recreational marijuana.
Tremors are beginning to register, however, on the political Richter scale. Rural Republicans have had a belly full of second-class citizenship. The National Federation of Independent Businesses recently held a forum on the inequity of property taxes that have doubled for its members in just the past three years. Four-day-a-week school schedules may hold some charm in our ski communities (who wouldn’t like a day on the slopes before the weekend rush), but our constitution also promises Colorado students a uniform system of public education. The structure of state fiscal rules requires a comprehensive redesign that reflects current economic realities. That is likely to be achieved only if every stakeholder engages in a negotiation that demands they take a seat in the boat, once designed, and pull on their oar without complaint.
The big reveal at the close of the Wizard of Oz is the homunculus behind the curtain. 2020 seems a good time to test whether there remains any juice in Tabor’s third rail. Or, is all that buzz just a ghost rider on the wire?