The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights has long provoked political tension, and this election year is proving no different, thanks to a larger-than-usual mandatory refund. But once again, politics is getting in the way of healthy policy discussion.
So let’s first put in context the politics, and then consider what actually matters.
The political games began when some of the state’s most prominent Democrats — particularly Gov. Jared Polis — tried to claim credit for the mandatory TABOR refunds. To do this, the refund checks were rebranded as “Colorado Cashback” and expedited to arrive just prior to the midterms.
As you might expect, people saw through the ruse.
Still, in a recent interview the governor doubled down on the actions, calling it “cynical” to call them political. Of course, Polis has reason to defend the actions: He signed the explanatory letter that will accompany each $750 refund check — a letter that doesn’t once mention the phrase TABOR and implies false credit to the governor for the funds.
To call it below-the-belt politics is easy, but lest you be giddy at my criticism of Democrats, consider yourself dutifully reminded that Republicans are playing the field with far dirtier tricks.
While many Colorado Republicans claim to be egregiously outraged by Colorado Cashback, their outrage was miraculously missing when, in 2020, then President Donald Trump demanded his name not only appear on the letter accompanying the federal stimulus checks, but that it appear in an unprecedented move on the more than 35 million checks themselves in a presidential election year.
But it’s more than double standards by Colorado Republicans.
The primary reason Republicans want to raise hell about the TABOR refunds is because they hope to divert attention from their extremist roster of statewide nominees. From governor to local reps, they sport a lineup that includes election deniers, insurrectionists, anti-abortionists, religious zealots and, in most cases, combinations of all these and more. Apparently if your candidates hold positions wildly out of touch with the average Coloradan, diversion truly is your only hope.
And here’s another thing Republicans eager to dump on Democrats won’t tell you: Despite the shady attempt at rebranding and the delivery timeline, Democrats actually do deserve credit for giving the average Coloradan a larger TABOR refund than they would otherwise have been given — even in the boom year.
While TABOR refunds are typically distributed with higher income earners getting a larger share of the refunds due to having paid higher taxes, under this year’s first-of-its-kind Senate Bill 233, TABOR refunds will temporarily offer more support to lower income Coloradans.
This was accomplished by paying a flat check to every person regardless of taxes paid, meaning the state’s top earners could get as much as $1,000 less than they would before the bill, while the state’s poorest could each see as much as $200 more. It’s a change that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened under a Republican-controlled state.
Yet for all the political pointing of fingers, the underlying issue remains the same: TABOR isn’t working for Colorado, it never has, and even if we each get a big, fat refund this year we should get rid of it as quickly as possible.
This message is a whole lot harder to swallow as bloated checks are on their way back to taxpayer pockets. Without a doubt, this will make it more difficult to convince voters the constitutional amendment is hands down one of the worst policies on the books — which likely explains why Democrats tried to take credit for the refunds under an absurd alias in the first place.
But for those with a pulse on the checkbooks, it’s no secret that TABOR has put state finances in a dire state. As best demonstrated in a quote by Sen. Bob Rankin — a Republican who sits on the state’s Joint Budget Committee — even those who support the idea of TABOR and limited government acknowledge the amendment has gone too far.
The impact of TABOR has left the state ranking at the very bottom in the nation for education funding, transportation funding and other funding for critical infrastructure. This means that while it might seem like Coloradans are winning this year, part of the reason we need so much help in the first place is because we aren’t funding critical areas of our government to begin with.
The collective impact of lost revenue means less funding for public salaries and infrastructure whereby most of us actually stand to lose far more than we appear to gain. So whatever you call it, remember that your $750 check — one that is no doubt helpful for many of us — absolutely comes with strings attached.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.