As expected, there was the usual end-of-session chaos, especially in the last few hours on Monday night, at the state legislature. Something like it happens every year, but whatever bad feelings linger this time, they will be nothing compared to some past sessions.
My most memorable bit of legislative bedlam is from 2012. Then-House Speaker Frank McNulty killed a civil unions bill — one that would have been history-making and was expected to pass — using every possible semi-shady political maneuver to prevent a vote. McNulty’s last stand would basically cost Republicans control of the House in the next election. And of course, same-sex marriage would eventually be legalized, making civil unions a non-issue and putting Colorado Republicans on the wrong side of history, where they’ve generally managed to remain.
In this year, we had a Republican Party walkout in the House amid accusations of being bullied by Democrats with their overwhelming majorities; a few interparty and also Democratic intraparty shouting matches; a failed Republican Senate filibuster; a failed Jared Polis land-use/affordable housing bill, which didn’t get enough Democratic support; a saved (by Polis and others) property-tax bill, including a bid to reform a few TABOR rules; a bid to make TABOR refunds more equitable; general bad feeling; shared relief when it was finally over.
It could have been worse. They could have been fighting about who picks up a certain former president’s courtroom tab.
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The property-tax bill, with added TABOR ramifications, caused much of the excitement, including the walkout. And not surprisingly, the same issues that angered conservatives conversely cheered the legislature’s progressive wing, which hasn’t always been satisfied with results from the heavily Democratic legislature this session.
You know about property taxes. Although still relatively low in Colorado compared to most states, they would explode without changes in the law. There are multiple fuses at play here — the 2020 bipartisan decision, seconded by voters, to rid Colorado of the Gallagher Amendment, which, among other features, restricted property tax growth, and, of course, there’s the red-hot (just recently downgraded from white-hot) housing market.
Something would obviously be done, given the number of homeowners who also, you know, vote. But what Polis and the Democratic legislature proposed was a plan to limit tax growth, which both parties agreed on, but then return money to localities and school districts — both of which rely heavily on property tax revenues — by dipping into TABOR refunds. As you know, many Republicans see any such “dipping” as “robbing,” and, most of all, “big government taking money from the voters” — who, by the way, will get to vote on this 10-year plan, Proposition HH, in November. There will also be a competing, far more conservative plan on the ballot.
But with the property-tax bill in some jeopardy, Democrats made a couple of late moves to please progressives. Both moves would help renters, who make up more than a third of Colorado households and who had basically been ignored in the property-tax debate. Oh, and they also vote. And they know better than to think, as at least one GOP legislator has suggested, that tax breaks for landlords would result in trickling-down benefits for renters. Like death and taxes, I guess, the trickle-down theory never goes away.
One change was to reform the method by which TABOR refunds would be distributed. Presently, there’s a six-tier refund system, which, as you might guess, favors those in the top tier, meaning those who make the most money. Those who make the most are, by the way, often the same people who are saving the most by limiting property taxes.
But as it did last year, the legislature has voted for a one-year flat refund, meaning checks from the state would come in the same amount for everyone, which, as you might also guess, heavily favors those in the lower tiers. It should be noted that if the property-tax bill fails to pass, then the flat-tax refund plan reverts to the tiered method.
The other move was for a second dip into TABOR refund money, this time for more direct tax relief for renters.
There was some support in this session to make the flat tax permanent, but it never came close to a vote. Presumably, it will be discussed during the next session, not that I’d expect it to pass.
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We can also assume the affordable-housing issue will return in force. The bill, opposed by municipalities which would have lost control over many zoning issues, was the centerpiece of Polis’ legislative policy. It was a surprise to many that Polis, who rarely loses in the legislature, lost on this one, especially given the general agreement among Democrats with Polis on the need for more housing density.
Since the state desperately needs more housing, you can expect another bill — probably with more buy-in from big cities — to be considered next session. And as we await the inevitable next mass shooting with an AR-15-style rifle, you can also expect another attempt at banning or limiting or doing something about assault-style weapons in the state.
But, as I said, that’s for next year. This year’s session is done. And when the next session begins in January of 2024, many of the old bad feelings will likely be gone — only for new ones inevitably to emerge.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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