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Democrats avoid Jared Polis in quest to ensure Coloradans get the full picture on income tax changes

Senate Bill 222 would refer a measure to the November ballot that would require that voters get more up-front information on how income tax initiatives would affect them

Gov. Jared Polis signs an abortion rights bill into law on April 4, 2022, in Denver. The bill passed following the longest House debate in state history (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
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Democrats in the Colorado legislature want to ensure voters are informed about how changes to the state’s income tax rate would affect the amount of money they must pay the government. But proponents of the effort must go around Gov. Jared Polis to do it.

Senate Bill 222, which was introduced last week, would refer a measure to the November ballot that would require the nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff to create a table that shows how much more or less people in eight income categories would pay as a result of the change.

The table would have to appear on any future ballot measure proposing to raise or lower the income tax rate. It also would have to appear on petitions circulated by signature gatherers to get income tax measures on the ballot. 

A version of the table already appears in the “blue book,” the nonpartisan, state-issued ballot guide distributed to all Colorado voters. But proponents of Senate Bill 222 say their legislation would make it easier for people to see the information before they cast a tax-policy vote.

Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and prime sponsor of the legislation, called Senate Bill 222 “an incredibly important tax transparency measure.”

The bill is an extension of a measure passed by Democratic lawmakers last year requiring that ballot measures cutting taxes include an explanation of how much revenue would be slashed and what programs would be most affected. The 2021 legislation also now requires that ballot initiatives raising taxes explain how the new revenue would be spent.

In this April 12, 2019, file photo, Colorado Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, applauds after speaking at a bill signing that allowed Colorado to become the 15th state to adopt a “red flag” law. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

But the sponsors of this year’s bill — Pettersen and Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno and Democratic Reps. Chris Kennedy and Mike Weissman — are seeking voter approval to make the change instead of simply passing a bill because they say Polis, a fellow Democrat, won’t sign such a policy change into law.

“There are a number of components (last year) where we reached agreement with the governor,” said Kennedy, a Lakewood lawmaker who also worked on last year’s bill. “But he expressed some concern about the idea of printing a table where it breaks down the value of the tax benefit or the tax increase to different income brackets … on the ballot itself. So, this year, what we’ve introduced is a bill that’s going to refer this question to the voters so that the governor doesn’t have to weigh in on it.”

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The governor, whose philosophy on tax policy has been hard to pin down, frequently clashes with Democrats in the legislature over tax proposals.

Liberal members of the House and Senate would like to see him embrace changes that would make the state’s tax code more progressive by charging wealthier Coloradans more compared to their lower-income neighbors. Instead, Polis has advocated for reducing and even eliminating the state’s income tax as part of a libertarian streak that has garnered him national attention.

The governor’s office did not comment on the merits of the bill when asked by The Colorado Sun, but a spokeswoman did say that Polis thinks the proposed change is something voters should decide.

“Gov. Polis believes that voters should decide how issues are presented on the people’s ballot because it is their ballot, not the state legislature’s ballot,” said Kara Powell, a spokeswoman for the governor. “That includes whether or not to approve requiring a table in the fiscal summary for any ballot initiative that would increase or decrease the tax rate.”

If the question makes it on the November ballot it will be too late to affect Initiative 31, a Republican-backed measure already on this year’s ballot that seeks to reduce the income tax rate to 4.4% from 4.55%.

Republicans fought Democrats’ 2021 ballot transparency bill and are now fighting Senate Bill 2022. They see both pieces of legislation as an affront to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 amendment to the Colorado constitution requiring that voters approve tax changes and limiting government growth and spending.

Jesse Mallory, who leads the Colorado branch of Americans For Prosperity, an organization that fiercely defends TABOR, said “nothing screams ‘our friends have a tax increase coming’ quite like (this bill).” 

Other conservatives argue Senate Bill 222 is unnecessary since the information is already in the blue book.

“I hear from a lot of people tha tour ballot language is already way too long and too complicated,” said Michael Fields, a conservative fiscal policy activist. “This legislature should spend more time on increasing public safety and lowering the cost of living — and less on meddling in the citizens initiative process.”

Colorado Democrats, who have long been opponents of TABOR, have essentially acknowledged in recent years that trying to repeal TABOR isn’t politically feasible for now. That’s why they’ve introduced bills like Senate Bill 222 to try to blunt the policy’s impact.

The 2020 election blue book is compiled by nonpartisan legislative staff to help voters understand the ballot measures. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis and Democrats in the legislature even unveiled a plan last week to advance $400 TABOR refund checks to each taxpaying Coloradan in late August or early September. The money was set to be distributed in April 2023. 

The proposal was panned by Republicans as an election-year stunt, with conservatives criticizing Democrats for embracing TABOR and trying to use it to their political advantage after years of trying to unravel the policy.

Senate Bill 222 cleared its first committee Tuesday along party lines and advanced to the Senate floor on Friday.


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