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TABOR rears its ugly head 

City Sage

The state's economy is booming, tax receipts are growing, and jobs are somewhat available, so the state government can begin to catch up with education, transportation and infrastructure funding ... or can it?

Maybe not, because it's TABOR time. When Colorado tax revenues increase too rapidly, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and its arcane provisions authored by Douglas Bruce kick in, forcing the state to refund "surplus" tax revenues or ask voters for permission to retain them.

The state constitutional amendment may have seemed simple, transparent and commonsensical to the voters who approved it in 1992, but it isn't. Sold as a measure that took away the power to raise taxes from spendthrift elected officials, the measure was far more complex.

Bruce wrote every word of the lengthy amendment, explicitly designed to shrink, hobble and defund Colorado governments at every level.

TABOR limits government revenue increases to an annual figure determined by population growth plus inflation. That may sound reasonable, but Bruce's simplistic formula doesn't work. It has forced the state to make continual service cuts and defer infrastructure maintenance and construction, because the world Bruce envisioned bears little resemblance to the world we live in.

In the real world, tax revenues may vary sharply during any multi-year period. If revenues are flat for years before rebounding sharply, too bad! The revenue cap starts from zero every fiscal year. The 2005 passage of Referendum C mitigated TABOR's effects for a few years, and the recession made it irrelevant for a few more. But now it's back with a vengeance.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "The segments of the population requiring the most state services, such as senior citizens and children, often expand more rapidly than the population as a whole. In Florida [which recently defeated a TABOR measure], for example, the total population is projected to grow by 27 percent from 2010 to 2030, while the 65-and-older population is projected to grow three times as fast, by 87 percent." The gray tsunami is sweeping across the country, and Colorado will not be spared.

TABOR's inflation measure — the Denver/Boulder Consumer Price Index — is not an accurate measure of the cost of providing state services. It measures changes in the cost of goods and services that consumers buy (housing, transportation and food), not services that state governments provide (such as education and health care). As the CBPP notes, "the cost of providing public services grows much faster than the general rate of inflation for consumer goods, in part because public services are less likely to reap the efficiency and productivity gains achieved by other sectors of the economy. For example, teachers can only teach so many students, and nurses can only care for so many patients."

TABOR's fiscal mischief-making is compounded by Amendment 23, passed in 2000, which mandates annual increases in K-12 education spending.

"Amendment 23 requires us to spend more. TABOR requires us to spend less. It really is a Gordian knot," Gov. John Hickenlooper recently told the Denver Post. But Hick apparently doesn't want to cut the Gordian knot.

"I'm not saying we should get rid of TABOR," he continued. "I think people should have the right to vote. But they need to have the facts. Inflation plus population growth doesn't solve all the fiscal challenges we need."

Despite an estimated $900 million shortfall in education spending, the state might have to refund about $130 million in general fund revenue and, bizarrely enough, $30 million in "excess" marijuana tax revenues. Never mind that Colorado voters approved a 2013 measure mandating that those revenues be used to build and fix rural schools — they'll be refunded, unless the voters decide otherwise.

But flawed as TABOR may be, the timorous politicians who go along with it are the real problem. They need to abandon fealty to the felonious Mr. Bruce's fiscal straitjacket, and ask the voters to amend our crackpot constitution.

Don't hold your breath. TABOR may be the turd in Colorado's gleaming punchbowl, but politicians are loath to admit it. Even while criticizing TABOR, Hickenlooper embraced it.

"Just for the record," he said, "I like TABOR."

John, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a turd is a turd is a turd. Flush it.

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