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Nicolais: With TABOR in their crosshairs, progressives seek to fundamentally change Colorado’s political identity

The constitutional provision’s constraints on legislative taxing and spending power poses the only remaining obstacle to enacting a progressive agenda

While legal wrangling over Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, TABOR, makes for good satire, the overarching political fight represents the state’s most existential ideological battle. 

With a ballot measure for repeal marching toward Election Day for the first time in nearly three decades, the TABOR campaign will have more lasting consequence than any individual election cycle.

Even last year’s Democratic decimation of the Republican Party won’t have the same long-term effect likely to come about from a vote on TABOR.

Mario Nicolais

For example, in a tickling bit of irony, Democrats may owe their takeover to TABOR. 

While Democrats turned Colorado from reddish-purple to blue over the past 15 years, it remains a centrist state. Consequently, to reach their goal, Democrats needed to employ a pragmatic approach that resisted a lurch to the left and made room for candidates who didn’t always adhere to the progressive agenda. 

As Republicans perfected the circular firing squad and nominated candidates unable to attract moderate voters, Democrats began winning more and more districts.

Without TABOR in place, though, it’s hard to imagine Democrats would have resisted singing the progressive tax-and-spend doxology for so long. Without TABOR and its constraints on the legislative ability to raise taxes, Democrats would have certainly proposed bumping tax rates on multiple occasions for this pet project or that. 

Such tax proposals, whether implemented or not, may have stunted the Democratic Party from growing into the juggernaut we see today. And all because TABOR protected them from their most progressive impulses.

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Now solidly ensconced in power and without check from Republicans, though, the TABOR shackle seems to have finely chafed the Democratic Party too much. The all-out offensive against TABOR this year proves progressives want to break free from the last constraint against their elected power.

Of course, Colorado voters will have something to say about it. 

Recent surveys by top pollster Magellan Strategies indicates those voters aren’t as interested in giving Democrats such unbridled power. Only 36% of Coloradans support full repeal of TABOR while a near majority 48% oppose such a power grab. 

In fact, Magellan found 46% of voters view TABOR favorably as a “check on government spending, holding elected officials accountable and requiring them to explain their spending decisions.” Only 36% believed TABOR’s effect on public education, roads, and government services justified repeal.

That dichotomy explains the indirect piecemeal approach progressives have taken to TABOR. 

After years of frontal assaults broke against the barricades of TABOR’s popularity, progressives have finally sent in a Trojan Horse (or Trojan Rabbit, if you prefer). This November’s Proposition CC would allow the state to keep all excess tax revenues rather than refunding the money to taxpayers. 

As Magellean’s David Flaherty pointed out, “It’s a very simple ask and it doesn’t even mention TABOR.” It sounds like the same trick chef’s use to boil frogs.

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The tactic has merit, though, as demonstrated by the 54% of respondents who supported Proposition CC in Magellan’s poll. By limiting the scope and tying the proposition to specific purposes — public school, higher education and roads, bridges and transit — the proponents gave themselves a necessary head start before the messaging war truly begins.

If Proposition CC passes, one leg will be cut out from TABOR. And as Monty Python aptly proved, when you cut one leg off an opponent blocking your passage to the Holy Grail, it’s more than just a flesh wound. The other is likely to follow.

The long-term repercussions would fundamentally change Colorado. An atrophied Republican Party combined with a new source of funds for elected Democrats would almost certainly lead to the largest expansion of government programs and services in Colorado’s history.

Whether that’s the direction Coloradans wish to take will be the real issue on the ballot over the coming years, regardless of the carefully crafted language drafted by progressives with decades of lessons learned.

Take heed, the real fight for Colorado’s ideological identity is just beginning.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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