TABOR On Life Support
By Mark Hillman, April 3 2009
Seventeen years ago, Colorado voters frustrated by the excesses of an unresponsive government passed the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), a constitutional amendment designed to limit government spending and give voters to final word on tax hikes.
Initially, government officials largely adhered to TABOR’s strictures, ever mindful that the voters had spoken and expected those they elected to play by the rules.
Last month’s Orwellian decision by the Colorado Supreme Court signaled that no longer will the executive, legislative nor judicial branches of state government – all dominated by liberals – abide by a constitutional amendment that crimps their big-spender style.
Governing powers wager than most voters have forgotten why TABOR passed, much less what it was intended to do. That’s a dangerous gamble because TABOR’s primary tenets – subjecting tax increases to a public vote and limiting government spending – still elicit strong public support.
Last year, a constitutional amendment that would have rolled back the requirement that surplus tax revenues be refunded to taxpayers lost 55% to 45%, despite a $2.5 million campaign and only token opposition.
Instead of living within TABOR’s easily-defined guardrails, Democrats have adopted a strategy of making it irrelevant through subversive interpretations and raising unprecedented revenue through “fees” – indistinguishable from taxes to anyone but a lawyer.
Last year, Gov. Bill Ritter first proposed a $100 increase in the annual vehicle registration fee – distinguished from the registration tax only by the quarter-inch that separates the two on your car’s registration papers.
When KOA radio’s Mike Rosen suggested that Ritter was merely side-stepping TABOR because it didn’t apply to fees, the governor explained that this $500 million measure was legitimately a fee because “there really is a direct relationship between highway usage and infrastructure.”
He didn’t bother to explain how that was different from the fuel tax, since there is obviously a “direct relationship” between gasoline and transportation.
This year, Democrat legislators gave Ritter a $250 million vehicle fee increase. Can a fuel “fee” increase be far behind?
Ritter and his Democrat spending machine have also devised a new fee on hospitals, calculated to raise $600 million a year, while claiming to do so without raising costs on consumers. Magically, hospitals and state government rake in more money, but conveniently nobody pays more. Right.
Which brings us to the courts, unelected because the justices are expected to apply the law regardless of whether doing so is convenient or popular.
When the courts ruled that no “tax policy change” occurred even though Ritter and the legislature amended state law – what is law if not “policy”? – to force school districts to raise more property tax revenues, liberals were emboldened to short-circuit another TABOR provision that puts voters in charge.
The “weakening” clause reserves to voters the ability to ease existing limits on revenue, spending or debt. But Democrats, taking another page from Orwell, declared that the state’s general fund spending limit – that’s what state law calls it – is not a limit but “an allocation strategy.”
“TABOR is silent on allocation strategies,” declares Democrat Sen. John Morse, endorsing yet another slap in the face to taxpayers.
It’s difficult to imagine why Democrats lawmakers would present voters with an outright tax increase ever again, so long as they can find legal lapdogs who will apply weasel words to change tax increases and spending limits into something else.
What tax issues, then, will voters be asked to consider? Mostly local government taxes or state matters in which the legislature or a special interest thinks it can fund a warm-fuzzy government program by taxing an unpopular target.
TABOR’s most significant remaining limit, a cap on total state spending, was modified and temporarily suspended by Referendum C. Under those terms it returns in 2011, whereupon the cult of big government will undoubtedly devise a scheme to render it meaningless, too.
Won’t it be ironic if, by inventing so many loopholes through which taxpayers can be soaked, overreaching Democrats sew the seeds of the next taxpayer revolt?
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Cross-posted by permission of the author, Mark Hillman)