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Gov. Jared Polis speaks before signing an abortion rights bill into law on April 4, 2022, in Denver. The bill, following the longest House debate in state history, states that pregnant individuals have the right to give birth or have an abortion. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Coloradans would receive their tax refunds for the current fiscal year up to eight months early under a bill unveiled Monday by Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic state lawmakers. 

Individual taxpayers would receive $400 under the plan while families would get $800. The money would be sent out as soon as August — before the November 2022 election — instead of the normal timeline of spring 2023.

“Instead of government sitting on the money, we want to make sure we get it back to people,” Polis said at a news conference at the Capitol surrounded by Democratic lawmakers.

The effort comes amid growing election-year pressure on the state’s majority party over inflation and the economy.

“It’s a very simple policy,” Polis said. “Check your mailbox in late August early September.”

But the reality is the details of the plan are quite complicated.

The changes would be made possible by a clause in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights that lets the legislature determine how to refund excess tax revenue to Coloradans. 

TABOR limits government growth and spending to inflation and population growth. Nonpartisan legislative staff expect a $2 billion surplus over the TABOR cap this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and a $1.56 billion surplus next year. The Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting predicts a TABOR excess of $2.2 billion this year, and $2 billion and $1.3 billion in the next two years. 

The refund checks would account for about $1.4 billion of the expected surplus in the current fiscal year. The rest of the money would be refunded through an income tax reduction and an expansion of the homestead property tax exemptions for seniors and disabled veterans.

If there is still money left over, it would be distributed through another round of smaller checks to Coloradans.

The irony of the plan is that it’s entirely made possible by TABOR, which Democrats generally loathe. Coloradans would have been refunded the money one way or another thanks to the 1992 amendment to the state constitution.

“I’m happy that Jared Polis and the Democrats in the state legislature have publicly reversed course and are now joining Republicans in touting the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights,” Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said in a written statement.”For years, these same Democrats have worked to undermine TABOR and fought to increase fees and taxes on everyday Coloradans. However, I’m pleased to see their apparent change of heart, even if it is clearly just an election-year game.” 

Republicans have been hammering Polis and Democrats over the rising cost of living in Colorado. GOP candidates up and down the ballot have made criticizing Democrats over inflation, particularly gas prices, a cornerstone of their 2022 pitch. 

Polis and Democrats in the legislature have already responded by offering a host of fee relief measures, including one that would delay for nine months the implementation starting in July of a new 2-cent-per-gallon gas fee. The fee was enacted by Polis and Democrats through the passage last year of a sweeping transportation funding bill.

The governor denied on Monday that the plan is a response to political pressure facing Democrats.

“It has to do with the economic pressure that the people of Colorado are facing,” he said. “It would make no sense just because this year happens to be an election year to delay these refunds. This is the summer when we’re suffering from $4-per-gallon gas prices. This is the summer where the supply chain issues lead to higher grocery prices. So it’s critical that we act as quickly as possible to get this out to people.”

While the governor framed the TABOR refund checks for the 2021-22 fiscal year being sent out in April 2023 as a delay, that is just the normal timeline for their distribution.

Mark Ferrandino, a Polis appointee who leads the Colorado Department of Revenue, said the plan to advance TABOR refund checks will not carry over into future years.

The way in which Democrats plan to distribute the TABOR refunds in advance would favor lower-income Coloradans. The money is normally handed out based on income level, with higher earners getting larger refunds. But the advance refunds will be released at a flat rate, meaning lower-income Coloradans will receive more money than they would have otherwise.

Under the old system, an individual filer making up to $47,000 a year would get a TABOR refund of $276, according to state Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. That assumes there would be $1.4 billion of refund checks cut.

Someone making $263,000 or more, meanwhile, would have received $871.

Scott Wasserman, who leads the Bell Policy Center, a liberal-leaning fiscal policy nonprofit, said he is “encouraged to see a more equitable distribution of the TABOR rebate this year.”

“Coloradans don’t support the wealthiest among us getting tax cuts and I hope this is the beginning of efforts to make tax code fairer and smarter,” he said.

The refund checks would be distributed by mail and would be signed by Treasurer Dave Young, a Democrat up for reelection in November.

The checks are slated to arrive in people’s mailboxes by Sept. 15.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....