Colorado is the only state in the union with a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (“TABOR” to politicos), and for good reason: it has been a massive failure.
Not even the deepest red states want to follow the path of arch-conservatism that TABOR demands so, in the almost 30 years since its passage, no state has emulated it.
The most egregious part of TABOR is a provision that Colorado must refund the proceeds of our booming economy when our tax revenues surpass an arbitrary limit.
Any reasonable person will acknowledge that Colorado has massive budget shortfalls for public schools, billions in road construction needs, and unaffordable college tuition rates; at the same time the revenue cap imposed by TABOR prohibits the state from addressing those problems.
That is why it was exciting to see the legislature take on this issue in the 2019 session. Because of the leadership of KC Becker, the Democratic Speaker of the House, voters in Colorado will get the chance to undo the mistake of a “revenue cap” when they cast their ballots in November 2019; hopefully putting an end to the worst part of TABOR while simultaneously investing new money into our neighborhood schools, infrastructure, and higher education. All without raising taxes.
The bills that made this possible, HB-1257 and –1258, trigger a ballot referendum, giving Coloradans a chance to weigh-in, but did not pass without some disappointment. Namely that the votes to approve the referendum fell along party lines in the state House.
Why is that such a disappointment? Because each time the bills were considered in committee, Republican leaders from every corner of Colorado came to testify in favor of putting more money into schools and roads.
Why wouldn’t they? Rural schools, overwhelmingly managed by conservative Boards of Education, have been forced to operate on four-day schedules and to reach those schools you must first drive over some very mangled roads.
Republican county commissioners from rural Colorado understand this. That’s why they came to testify in favor of the bills, presumably leaving their MAGA hats at home to team up with Democrats.
The business community — not generally a bastion of liberalism — also understands why we need competitive schools and access to quality infrastructure.
You saw this when chambers of commerce came together to try to pass a sales tax increase for roads in 2018. That effort failed, but the mountain of needs for road construction and bridge repair continues to grow, so business leaders showed up in force this session to support the bills, too.
The Republican who seems to understand the problem, but ignores his own base, is House Minority Leader Patrick Neville.
Neville kept every Republican vote in the House unified against a measure with bipartisan community support, but he condemned himself with his own words on the opening day of the 2019 session by saying:
“There’s no reason a significant portion of our budget can’t be spent on transportation, especially at a time when our coffers are overflowing. [Coloradans] don’t want taxes raised to pay for the transportation projects we already have money for.”
Neville is right: we already have the money in our coffers and it should be spent. Yet he did everything in his power to deny Coloradans the chance to invest those tax dollars in the very place Neville himself acknowledges both a need and available funds.
In doing so, Neville laid bare his true motives. Neville doesn’t want to fix roads or support rural schools more than he wants to satisfy his own career ambitions.
By voting “no” on a call for a referendum he can turn around and (falsely) say to voters that he fought for taxpayers, even though the referendum will not raise taxes.
Neville also demonstrated a lack of trust in the people of Colorado to make decisions, rightfully fearing they do not agree with his far-right agenda — thus his perpetual existence in the minority — and that they will vote for this coming referendum if given the chance.
By whipping his caucus into a “no” vote, Neville sent the message that he would rather have a talking point about his defiance than actually improve the lives of Coloradans. It’s political gamesmanship our students and economy cannot afford.
Barrett Rothe is Chair of the Colorado Democratic Party’s Fiscal Reform Initiative, which focuses on TABOR reform.