Guv wants TABOR eased; Believes spending limit is hurting state, but others say it has saved it
Denver Daily News Staff Writer
Gov. Bill Ritter said last Thursday that he is working with groups outside the Capitol to craft a 2011 ballot initiative that would eliminate aspects of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
Speaking to members of the Colorado Alliance for Retired Americans -- an arm of the AFL-CIO union -- Ritter explained how Colorado's constitution makes it difficult for lawmakers to prevent severe budget cuts to departments such as human services and public safety.
He said that while government in other states has grown, Colorado is left in a more difficult financial situation because of TABOR restrictions.
"The people of Colorado support the right to vote on tax increases that impact them. But you could change the parts of TABOR that has to do with restrictions on spending increases that would have impacted growth significantly," said Ritter.
The topic came up when 88-year-old Fern Osborne, vice-president of the Colorado Alliance for Retired Americans, spoke up passionately about cuts to services and tax breaks for seniors, such as a proposal to close units that treat seniors at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan, and once again eliminating a property tax break for seniors.
"We're not happy about the money that's been taken away from us," said Osborne. "I had hopes, I had great hopes that I would be the last old person that would ever have to go down to (the Capitol) and ask for money for the seniors. I just thought that it would be there ... but that's not going to happen."
Ritter explained that while other state governments grew by as much as 8.5 percent during healthy years, Colorado was restricted to 6 percent growth under the Colorado spending limit known as Arveschoug-Bird, which had only allowed the state to grow by 6 percent from the previous year.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature this year eliminated that spending restriction. But Ritter says TABOR still presents many hurdles for lawmakers to overcome.
"I'm not going to blame all the ills of the state on TABOR, but TABOR's been in place since 1992, and basically everything under this 6 percent line that we lived under, there was just a wrestling match for the dollars," said the governor.
GOP vows fight
Republicans have vowed to fight for TABOR. Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, the newest member to the powerful Joint Budget Committee, recently told the Denver Daily News that whatever measures are taken to close the state's estimated $318 million budget shortfall must not come at the expense of TABOR.
"I suggest that we first of all follow the constitution and follow the law," said Lambert.
Jon Caldara, president of the fiscally conservative Independence Institute, said it's inevitable that Democrats will go after TABOR. But he hopes that they will lose their campaign. Caldara said without spending restrictions, Colorado would be in as bad of shape as California, which is facing a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.
"They want to take what has saved out budget, which is TABOR," he said. "I don't think it's going to be as easy to sell this time."
Caldara points out that Democrats pushed Referendum C in 2005 that enacted a five-year reprieve from TABOR refund requirements to be spent on education, health care and transportation.
"We've already permanently ratcheted up the size of the state budget," he said.
Amendment 23 eyed, also
Ritter acknowledged that any attempt to eliminate aspects of TABOR would likely come in concert with a measure to reform the 2000 voter-approved Amendment 23, which requires that education spending rise every year by 1 percent.
Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center, said his group has been having discussions with "friends in the governor's office" over a possible 2011 ballot question. He believes 2011 would provide the right political climate to push such a controversial initiative.
Buchanan believes that for the state to achieve true reform on several levels -- including education, health care and human services, to name a few -- eliminating aspects of TABOR is an important part of that discussion.
"We're the only state in the union that can only raise taxes through a vote of the people," said Buchanan. "I'm not saying good or bad -- I'm just saying we've got some very strict rules about how you do budgeting in this state. We need to be thoughtful about whether those are serving us the way that they need to serve us."