Icy wind from the northwest

Is it cold, nasty, windy and unpleasant this morning? Is there an icy wind from the northwest? Is there dirty snow on the ground, ice on your windshield and more snow in the forecast?

I certainly hope so since as you read this I'm sitting on a Caribbean beach, laughing at all you pitiful foolz in tha 719 ... Anyway, if my columns haven't been exactly topical for the last couple of weeks, it's because I wrote 'em before I got outta town.

Maybe it's the winter weather, maybe it's the war's tragic impact upon our community, maybe it's the lingering effect of 9/11 on our country, maybe it's the economy, maybe it's just me, but our city seems to have moved from its usual naive boosterism to a slightly sour pessimism.

We're losing jobs, not adding them. Utility rates are out of sight. Instead of building libraries, we're building jails and courthouses. Instead of getting tax rebates, we're getting a chance to vote on tax increases. So what's going on?

Let's look at the immediate past, starting in 1991. That was the year that local voters approved a couple of Doug Bruce-authored charter amendments: one forbidding elected officials to raise taxes without voter consent, the other phasing out the 1/2 cent sales tax that had been earmarked for capital improvements.

A couple of years later, voters statewide approved the Bruce-authored TABOR amendment, a similar measure that not only prohibited legislators from raising taxes without voter approval, but also established complex formulae that restricted year-to-year revenue growth of every governmental entity in the state, regardless of tax rates.

As you might expect, the Bruce amendments, which passed by narrow majorities, were bitterly opposed by some. Chamber of Commerce types smelled economic disaster, and liberals/government workers feared massive program cuts and job losses. They were wrong.

Thanks to a 10-year boom, literally without precedent in modern American history, government revenues at every level grew comfortably, despite revenue caps. And thanks to those very revenue caps, voters got used to annual refund checks from the state, not to mention lower tax rates, as legislators responded, however reluctantly, to the Bruce mandates.

There were still some nonbelievers out there, warning of disaster at some unspecified future date, but nobody paid much attention to 'em. Let the future take care of itself; right now, we're cashing our refund checks and we don't wanna hear nothin' bad about the Dougster!

Guess what? The future is now. Bartender, serve up a round of Colorado Specials! It's a highly toxic political cocktail, consisting of a shot of anti-tax voter fecklessness, two shots of slavish pandering to developers, and three parts of head-in-the-sand wishful thinking. Throw those babies down for a decade of revelry, and then wake up on a cold February morning, and what've you got?

A decade-long hangover.

There's nothing like the cold light of a winter morning to make you face unpleasant facts, so here they are:

Low taxes=underfunded infrastructure. Just for starters, we've got multibillion-dollar deficits in transportation and water storage -- not to mention education, public health/safety and most other governmental functions.

Rapid growth + revenue caps=privatized profits, socialized costs. A lot of us made money during the fat years; now all of us are going to have to pay. That's why, at a joint meeting of the City Council and the county commissioners, all 14 of 'em (13 Republicans and one lonely Democrat) voted to put a fat countywide sales tax increase on the November ballot. Seems we've got some unfunded infrastructure needs.

And as citizen activist Dave Gardner has pointed out, a substantial portion of utility rate increases, actual and projected, are disguised "development taxes." We're paying big bucks for system expansion, not system maintenance/enhancement.

Locally, we're stuck. Our backlog's so big that a tax increase large enough to fund it would never fly. In fact, the economy's so weak that any tax increase, however modest, would most likely go down in flames.

Statewide, we're just as stuck. Think tanks, legislators and responsible citizens can preach at the voters all they want; our often suspicious, innately conservative electorate is not about to get rid of TABOR, no matter how cleverly reform is packaged.

So what do we do? Start thinking a little differently about the costs and benefits of population growth. Look carefully at local government; for example, why have both city and county governments? Think about small changes now that may make a big difference 10 years hence.

Yup, think away ... Meanwhile, I'm 2,000 miles away, under the tropical sun, thinking about nothing.



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