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Politics and Government

Colorado Democrats want to use one of TABOR’s most effective tax-halting mechanisms for themselves

House Bill 1321 comes as progressives have all but given up on doing away with TABOR, the 1992 constitutional amendment that has served as a third rail in Colorado politics ever since its passage

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One of the most effective parts of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights when it comes to stopping tax-raising ballot questions in Colorado is a requirement that voters be informed, IN CAPITAL LETTERS, about the eye-popping sum they are deciding whether to allow the government to collect.

“SHALL STATE TAXES BE INCREASED $766,700,000 ANNUALLY FOR A TWENTY-YEAR PERIOD?” Proposition 110, which was focused on raising money for transportation projects, scream-asked voters in 2018. (It failed.)  

Now, Democrats are trying to adapt that potent TABOR transparency tool for their own purposes. 

House Bill 1321, a measure introduced at the Capitol this week, would require voters to be informed of which programs would be affected by ballot questions decreasing taxes. 

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The legislation would require the following language be attached to tax-reducing ballot measures: “Shall funding available for state services that include, but are not limited to, (the three largest areas of program expenditures) be impacted by a reduction of (projected dollar figure of revenue reduction to the state in the first full fiscal year that the measure reduces revenue) in tax revenue…?”

The bill would also mandate that ballots containing tax questions highlight how many people in which tax brackets would be most affected by tax hikes or decreases, and require that ballot titles for tax increases state that the aim is to “increase or improve levels of public services” and then list those services. 

“It’s an attempt to provide more information and level the playing field,” said Carol Hedges, who leads the liberal-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute, which supports the measure. “Currently, the all-caps language focuses people’s attention only on the size of state government. We know that the size of state government is not the only factor people should be considering.”

Scott Wasserman, who leads the Bell Policy Center, a liberal advocacy organization, called the measure “a great idea” that seeks to offset what he sees as the manipulative aspects of TABOR.

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House Bill 1321 comes as progressives have all but given up on trying to do away with TABOR, the 1992 constitutional amendment that requires voter approval for tax hikes and limits government spending and which has been a third rail in Colorado politics ever since its passage. Democrats are now trying to work within TABOR’s confines to find ways to raise revenue and reform the tax code. 

In addition to House Bill 1321, Democrats at the legislature this year are attempting to slash tax cuts for businesses and wealthy people and expand credits aimed at helping lower-income Coloradans. They’re also advancing Senate Bill 260, a sweeping transportation fee and spending bill that doesn’t require a vote of the people, but would raise billions of dollars. 

“I think that this legislature in particular has finally said ‘enough is enough,’” Hedges said. “I don’t think it’s nefarious. I think it’s an acceptance of the idea that this is what we’ve got.”

Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who is a prime sponsor of the measure, said it is a “stop-the-bleeding bill.”

“What we’ve seen, increasingly, is that Republicans, who have not been successful at winning majorities here at the Capitol in recent years, are increasingly turning their attention to the ballot and using that as a way to try to get government closer to the size that can be drowned in a bathtub,” he said. “We’d prefer that government not drown in the bathtub. We’d prefer that ballot measures don’t continue to chip away at our ability to fund our public schools and the other priorities that the voters of the state care about.”

State Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, joins other members and guests in the House chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kennedy said people don’t always connect the dots between a potential tax decrease and the programs and initiatives that are likely to be cut as a result.

“In Colorado, we empower voters to make a lot of big decisions on the ballot,” he said. “And I think it’s only fair that they see the whole picture.

Proponents of progressive tax-increase questions may benefit the most from the legislation since it would show voters that higher earners would have to pay more under the proposals. Reforming Colorado’s tax code to make wealthier people and businesses pay more has been a top policy goal for Democrats.

Republican state lawmakers and conservative tax activists who fiercely defend TABOR see it differently.

“Democrats care more about growing government than protecting hardworking taxpayers who are facing skyrocketing cost-of-living increases and struggling to make ends meet,” said state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican.

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Jesse Mallory, who leads Americans for Prosperity Colorado, said the legislation is just another attempt by Democrats to find a TABOR workaround. “They are going to scare people into voting the way they want them to,” he said. 

Mallory questioned who will decide what programs would be listed on the ballot as being most affected by a tax decrease, and how that determination will be made, given that program funding is often a moving target.

Michael Fields, who leads the conservative group Colorado Rising Action, called the bill “heavy-handed” and questioned its legality.

“I think this is clearly trying to bias the language to support big government,” he said. “I think people understand what higher and lower taxes mean to their personal life and their state government. And I think the courts might have something to say about how this is written and carried out.”

Kennedy says there’s no requirement that the language that would have to be added to tax ballot measures would have to be in capital letters as TABOR mandates. 

“We all swore an oath to uphold the constitution,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to like everything that’s in it. I think we are respecting the powers that be and just trying to make sure voters are given this information if they are going to be making these big decisions.”

The other prime sponsors of House Bill 1321 are Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, and Democratic Sens. Dominick Moreno, of Commerce City, and Brittany Pettersen, of Lakewood. The legislation is slated to get its first committee hearing next week.


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