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Opinion: Coloradans should get their TABOR tax refunds

If you read Proposition CC’s ballot language, you’ll be hard pressed to figure out what it’s really asking. It doesn’t say it’s permanent, it doesn’t mention the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, and it doesn’t point out that it’s a tax increase.

In fact, it deceptively begins by saying, “Without raising taxes…,” even though state government will be keeping and spending billions of dollars that would otherwise go back to taxpayers. 

Michael Fields

Frankly, the ballot language would get laughed out of the Title Board if a citizen ever brought it. But since the legislature gets to play by different rules, here we are. If legislators were being honest, the ballot language would read something like: “Can state government keep your TABOR tax refunds forever?” It’s not hard to guess how an honest ballot question like that would fare with the voters. 

Nevertheless, Proposition CC would simply be a permanent blank check to the state coffers, with no guarantee that the money will even go to education and transportation in the future. Even House Speaker KC Becker said:

One legislature can’t bind future legislators, so I don’t know what’s going to happen forevermore. And any change that is statutory, whether voters approve it or not, can always be changed by the legislature because the legislature always has the authority to change statutes

With no sunset on this ballot issue, and no assurances on where the money will go, it’s simply far too much trust to hand over to state politicians. 

We don’t have to look back far to see how this has played out before. Former State Treasurer Mark Hillman called it the “Ref C shuffle.”

After Referendum C passed in 2005, higher education was promised a boost to their funding. Instead, legislators cut higher education spending from existing sources and “replaced” those cuts with Ref C money.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The result? The percentage of General Fund spending flowing to higher education actually decreased after Ref C. No wonder former CU President Hank Brown was one of the first to come out against Proposition CC this year.  

One thing we do know is that statewide polling clearly shows that Coloradans want our roads fixed and higher pay for teachers. Prop CC would do neither.

We can’t bond for roads with TABOR tax refund money that might or might not be there year-to-year. We also can’t increase teacher pay, or hire new teachers, because the measure explicitly precludes it. 

When Ref C passed, we were told that it would help fix our roads. Then, in 2009, legislators increased our car registration fees to help fix our roads.

Then the Hospital Provider Fee fix freed up $600 million in the state budget to help fix our roads. That’s an extra $3 billion a year going into our state budget — but yet our roads are worse than ever. We’ll know that legislators are taking this issue seriously when they pass a long-term plan with dedicated General Fund money for roads.

As a former teacher, I’m very interested in how we spend education money in this state. Since 1990 we’ve increased spending on K-12 education by 20%. During that same time, teacher pay has dropped by 20%.

We are spending more money on education, but only 54% of education dollars are getting to teachers and classrooms. Until our education system gets administrative costs under control, and more money is put toward teachers, voters are going to be reluctant to raise their taxes. 

We also have to have an honest discussion about the overall growth in state spending. Our state budget has gone from $19 billion to $32.5 billion in just the last decade.

That’s an average of a $1.35 billion increase each year. Colorado is also ranked No. 2 for the growth of state spending since the recession in 2008. Legislators have enough money; they just have to prioritize it better.

Our TABOR tax refunds are projected to be $1.3 billion over the next three years. All of that money should be refunded to taxpayers. They need that money more than the government does.

Voting NO on Proposition CC in November will help protect our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. And protecting TABOR is about increased opportunity for Coloradans.

We can remain the No. 1 economy in the country, or we can follow states like Illinois and Connecticut where taxes are up, opportunity is down, and people are leaving. I believe Colorado can do better. 

Michael Fields is executive director of Colorado Rising Action. 


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