The one thing we could all agree on as the Colorado legislature began its special session to address property tax relief is what voters do not want.
They made that loud and clear in rejecting Proposition HH — the ill-fated referendum that hardly anyone really liked. Which is why it lost by a resounding 18 points, much to the embarrassment of Gov. Jared Polis, who seemed to be among the few who actually did like it.
Propositon HH’s failure caused Polis to call a special session. It was either that or wait for Colorado homeowners to begin screaming when they got a look at their next personal property tax bill next year.
What’s a little more confusing, though, is why Democrats, in the wake of the Proposition HH debacle, chose to rerun a slimmed-down version of the referendum as their lead bill in the special session. The not-so-easy answer, I guess, is simply this — while it’s clear that voters didn’t want Proposition HH, it’s much harder to figure out what they do want.
Before we get to that, though, we need to look at least one other thing we can all agree on — that this special session hasn’t been special at all. In fact, by the end of the session’s first day, the legislature had the look of nearly every other place in today’s world where Democrats and Republicans meet.
Which is to say mean, nasty and ugly.
The second day? It was even worse.
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Tempers flared on both sides. Rules were either not agreed on or simply ignored, depending on which side’s version you believed. Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, was in typical fine form, meaning he got in a shouting match with Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, which didn’t end until the House sergeant began walking toward Holtorf. Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans were complaining about being lectured to by Senate President Steve Fenberg, who admitted to being exhausted, which had to be an understatement.
The almost funny thing about the debate over Senate rules was that, in the end, it ensured that the special session, which Democrats hoped would end today, could not end before Monday and may go even longer, with the Thanksgiving holiday looming.
Why Republicans would want an extended session, in which they knew they would lose on every bill anyway, is a mystery to me, but one I’ll just have to accept for now.
And to top it all off, the insular world of the state legislature got a visit from the real world when pro-Palestinian protesters, who had been chanting outside the Capitol on Friday, waved Palestinians flag in the House gallery on Saturday, temporarily shutting down House proceedings. The protesters, who were calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, moved onto the Senate gallery before finally being removed.
What I’m saying, it’s not just the Proposition HH voters who were unhappy.
I’ve seen a lot of well-done analysis for exactly why Proposition HH fared so poorly. The consensus can be summed up in a few short sentences. The referendum, like much tax law, was confusing. It touched too heavily on the holy grail of TABOR refunds. And renters, facing the same real estate pricing pressures as owners, were largely ignored.
The question is, what do Colorado voters want?
We know homeowners desperately want relief because property tax appraisals are scheduled to skyrocket, which is a reasonable assumption given that housing prices have climbed by an estimated 40%.
We know — because it’s Colorado and we’ll never be rid of TABOR — that most people want their refunds, because who doesn’t want what looks like free money?
And that, I’m afraid, is pretty much all we know.
☀ MORE FROM MIKE LITTWIN
So, with that little knowledge in hand, and not knowing what else to do, Democrats, who maintain large majorities in both houses, are proposing bills that are very much like the recently rejected Proposition HH, except they last for only one year instead of 10.
Like Proposition HH, the Democratic bills would drop the tax rate from 6.765% to 6.7%. They would also exempt the first $50,000 of the appraised value.
And like HH, proposed bills would, uh, flatten the coming TABOR refund — meaning, every taxpayer would receive the same amount. And as in Proposition HH, the flattening would last for only one year.
Is that what voters want?
Isn’t that what they just voted against?
Democrats are guessing — and I wouldn’t say they’re wrong — that cutting back on the amount people will pay in property tax while only lightly touching next year’s TABOR refund is in line with much of what most Coloradans do want.
There are other related matters to be considered. Democrats will also almost certainly raise the amount of money for assistance to renters who are in danger of imminent eviction. The fact that renters received so little help in Proposition HH was a huge problem for progressives, not to mention for renters who aren’t progressives. Democrats are also set to pass a bill to double the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.
What Democratic proposals won’t do is provide relief for commercial property, which they see as too costly in the short term. Let’s just say that doesn’t make the business community all that happy.
As you know, the tricky part comes in how the bill will be funded, who loses out and who doesn’t. And, especially, how the argument gets made.
Whatever happens, since the amount of property tax, which comes to local governments, will be lower than expected, something has to be done — to pay for things like schools and fire departments and the other stuff that your local government provides.
There is $200 million set aside by the legislature for property tax relief that is just waiting for the appropriate bill to pass. And because of the complicated way in which TABOR works, spending that money wouldn’t affect possible refunds.
Additional money will come from the general fund, which will affect the amount to be refunded to taxpayers.
One thing you can predict from the special session, which will offer nothing more than a one-year fix for a long-term property-tax problem, is that when the issue gets a more comprehensive hearing in the next general session, it won’t get any easier.
What the Proposition HH failure showed us is that putting a complicated, controversial tax bill in front of the voters, while all the special interests weigh in, is extremely problematic.
What this special session is showing us is that putting a complicated, controversial tax bill before the legislature, while all the same special interests weigh in, isn’t much better.
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