Budget Ballot Initiatives Debated in Colorado
By Kirk Johnson
The New York Times
DENVER – Overturning Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a strict constitutional budget-collar known by its acronym, Tabor, is not on either major party's official to-do list for the 2010 election cycle.
Unofficially, though, the law and its effects are being discussed just about everywhere.
"Tabor is always lurking in the shadows," said Terrance Carroll, a Democrat and the speaker of the State House of Representatives. "Right now, it's lurking near the top."
For example, when Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. gave his final state-of-the-state speech on Thursday, he did not mention Tabor by name.
Instead Mr. Ritter, a Democrat who said this month that he would not seek a second term this fall, ripped into three initiatives on the November ballot that he called "backward-thinking," including two that would make Tabor even more strict.
One proposal would amend the Constitution to restrict state borrowing severely.
Another would cut vehicle registration fees to $1 for older cars and $2 for newer cars. That would more than roll back last year's increase in fees that averaged about $32 per vehicle. Tabor supporters said the increase amounted to an end-run around the law, which requires tax increases to be put up for a statewide vote.
The same proposal would also cut the state income tax rate to 3.5 percent from 4.63 percent.
The combined results would blow a $1.7 billion hole, or more, in a state budget that is already facing a $1.3 billion shortfall, according to an analysis by the Bell Policy Center, a research and advocacy group in Colorado that has opposed Tabor-driven spending cuts in social programs.
"The cynical game the proponents are playing with our future would quite literally destroy the safety net and wipe out any hope of creating a better future for our children," said Mr. Ritter, who has said he decided not to run again so he can spend more time with his family and focus on the state's battered budget with fewer political distractions.
Some Republicans say that if the Democrats heed Mr. Ritter's advice, they will dance too close to the fire of Tabor's widespread popularity and get burned – no matter how the language is parsed.
The mood of the voters, they say, has been darkened by recession and by fiscal decision-making at the Capitol in Denver under the Democrats. What the voters want, according to the Republicans, are more fiscal controls and cuts – and support for Tabor – than ever.
"They're trying to plant that seed of fear that these initiatives will lead to the utter meltdown of our state, and that's nonsense," said Dan Maes, a businessman who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. "These initiatives reflect the spirit of Colorado right now."
As for the Tabor initiatives themselves, Mr. Maes said he was uncertain. He said he supported the third proposal, a restriction on how and when property taxes could be increased, but would decide between now and November on the other two.
Mayor John W. Hickenlooper of Denver, a Democrat who last week said he would seek his party's nomination to replace Mr. Ritter, agreed that Tabor was popular and here to stay. Mr. Hickenlooper said he opposed two of the measures and was still looking into the third.
"I don't think we should repeal it – people don't want that," Mr. Hickenlooper said of Tabor. But the initiatives for the most part are not about long-term policy or politics, he said, but are just plain "bad government."
Another Republican candidate for governor, Scott McInnis, indicated he was sympathetic to the frustrations that led to the voter initiatives.
"Tabor, and the way in which the Democrats have disrespected the taxpayers, will be a huge issue," said Mr. McInnis's spokesman, Sean Duffy, referring to the campaign for governor. As for proposals to fix or toughen Tabor, "they're not terribly well drafted and raise a lot of concerns," Mr. Duffy said.
Asked whether Mr. McInnis might actively campaign against the Tabor measures, Mr. Duffy said he did not know.
An important backdrop to the governor's race and the debate over Tabor is that Republican leaders in the State Senate and House have said they agree with Mr. Ritter that the proposals might do more harm than good.
"I don't support any of the initiatives," said the Republican minority leader in the State Senate, Josh Penry. "But I also know they weren't initiated in a vacuum."
Mr. Penry said the Democrats in control of the legislature and the governor's office have "made a mockery of Tabor," through fee increases like the one on motor vehicles.
That said, he added, the three proposed initiatives still do not make sense.
"Those of us who support Tabor want to make clear that those initiatives are just bad public policy," he said.