It seems Colorado can’t afford nice things. Have you cruised down Utah highways recently? They’re in terrific shape. The same in New Mexico. Neighboring states have extended high-speed broadband to virtually all their rural communities. Did you realize the highest K-12 test scores are linked to the nation’s highest teacher salaries? Could that really be a coincidence? What about a sleek, swift MAGLEV monorail connection linking the Front Range to our mountain resorts? A quarter century has elapsed since this was recommended. A Fort Collins to Pueblo rail link would also be nice.
Listening to the pro-business Common Sense Institute’s complaints last week that the Colorado business community faces an additional $1.8 billion in taxes, levies and fees authorized by voters and the Legislature, it became apparent no one seems ready to step up and pay for the nice things we say we deserve — not Colorado property owners, not voters, not our politicians and now not our businesses. Don’t get me wrong, they all still want those nice things. They just want someone else to pay for them — perhaps the federal fiscal fairy currently showering Americans with checks. Or, as Americans for Prosperity always suggests — Colorado has plenty of money if we would just root out all the (non-existent) budget waste, fraud and abuse at the legislature.
Joining in the Common Sense Institute’s caterwauling were the Business Roundtable and Colorado Chamber of Commerce. Upon inspection, nearly half their projected costs will be generated by two programs: (1) a need to refill Unemployment Insurance reserves, which have been exhausted by COVID layoffs. Hardly a surprise. (It wasn’t clear who they believed should repay the federal loans currently keeping the checks coming — apparently, not the employers whose furloughed workers are barely remaining solvent until jobs return.) The potential costs for the Family Medical Leave plan approved by voters in November is included, although any contributions are several years away and half will then be shouldered by workers.
There were another three pages of assorted fees and charges, ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to tens of millions. Only a handful appeared likely to impact small businesses struggling to survive pandemic lockdowns and therefore worthy of re-evaluation. A few days later the governor addressed a Zoom meeting with Chamber of Commerce members. During a question-and-answer session, he was asked about state income taxes. He expressed his satisfaction that voters fractionally reduced the flat tax this past November and explained he would personally prefer to see Colorado income taxes eliminated entirely since they “…punish productivity.” No, Jared. Income taxes are levied on income in order to capture a portion of excessive earnings — all the more important since nearly 100% of additional income earned since the Great Recession has gone to the top 1% of taxpayers.
Writing in the latest Baffler, Aaron Timms quotes Silicon Valley maven and venture capital billionaire Peter Thiel, “Competition is an ideology … that distorts our thinking. The more we compete, the less we gain.” I don’t think the "we" he is thinking about includes gains for the rest of us. Competition is one of the few saving graces of capitalism that protects consumers. Nice things have to be paid for and competition makes them cheaper than they would be otherwise. Since the approval of the TABOR amendment in 1992, tax increases have been perceived as the third rail of Colorado politics. Suggest a new tax or an increased tax and you will fail, while your future political prospects will be damaged.
This has not proven true at the local level, where Colorado cities and towns, school boards and county commissioners win TABOR elections more often than they lose them. Statewide initiatives have tended to fail, however, with the exception of sin taxes. There’s little mystery in this. Local TABOR questions usually specify where, for what purpose and how long revenues will be collected. We are waiting to see the transportation funding proposal being cobbled together at the Capitol, but there is little evidence it will provide such detail. In California, which requires a super majority voter approval for transportation taxes, they’ve learned to succeed by building programs based on grassroots, neighborhood input. It’s spending by design.
Carol Hedges, who retires soon at the Colorado Fiscal Institute, has devoted two decades to attempting to craft a TABOR rewrite or repeal. She has enjoyed support from the nonprofit arena and occasionally from local governments, particularly school boards. With few exceptions there has been little encouragement from either the governor’s mansion or the legislature. Safer to stand back. If Colorado residents want nice things, if they want their state to be the Switzerland of North America, they need a political champion who tells them “We have to be willing to pay for that. I’m ready, are you?”