Political Hay

Stimulating Big Government

How Colorado pols are using the federal stimulus as an excuse to weaken the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

By 3.11.09

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When President Obama signed the federal stimulus package at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, conservatives gathered just a few miles away at the Colorado state capitol to protest. Many of the protestors sought refuge in the state's spending limits, which could prevent the stimulus from imposing new commitments on the state government.

The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) was originally passed by Colorado voters in 1992 to keep government spending at a minimum and put decisions in the hands of the electorate. But now that the stimulus has become law, citizens have been asking: Will TABOR offer protection against the stimulus dollars coming in to our state?

Answer: The money cannot, by law, be spent by lawmakers without first seeking voter approval. As things stand now, that is.

But there are many hoops lawmakers can jump through in order to achieve the spending they desire. Just ask state Representative Don Marostica. The moderate Republican hopes to repeal a relatively unknown part of TABOR known as the Arveschoug-Bird Amendment. Passed in 1991, it covers public and higher education and prisons, with anything remaining to be spent on transportation.  Though it allows for some increase due to inflation, that increase cannot go over six percent per year.

Anything projected over the six percent mark has to be approved by the voters. Arveschoug-Bird was wrapped into the state's constitution when TABOR was passed a year later in 1992.

The repeal of Arveschoug-Bird would water down the TABOR rules and allow lawmakers to spend money, including stimulus money, the way they see fit. Or in the words of state Representative John Morse (D-Colorado Springs), "[Citizens] have no right to this money."

Now that Colorado is expected to get $2 billion over the next two years from the federal government, liberal lawmakers are trying to find a way to have their cake and eat it too.

Because TABOR limits what can be spent based on revenue and the previous year's budget, lawmakers must plan for budget cuts to be made in virtually every program. Governor Bill Ritter has projected that at least $600 million will need to be cut in order to follow the mandates of TABOR. The stimulus package will potentially send billions more to the state -- to be spent at the legislature's discretion if the repeal of the amendment is successful.

In addition to the possible repeal of Arveschoug-Bird A, the governor has suggested a back-door tax increase to further increase the size of spending and keep government programs alive. By charging businesses fees and surcharges for various government "services," the state can raise another $300 million.

Conservatives in the legislature are fighting to keep the spending limits intact, but are so far coming up short. A nearly 10-hour filibuster in the Senate last week was thwarted as the Democratic majority approved the bill to repeal the Arveschoug-Bird Amendment. Senate Bill 228 is now on its way to the House, where it will face staunch opposition but is likely to pass because of a similar majority.

TABOR was passed by the people of Colorado to protect themselves against greedy legislators. Over the years the law has been slowly chipped away and now citizens are seeing the results.  

There was once a day when many other states and countless citizens looked to Colorado's TABOR as a model of tight budgets. But with a revenue-loving, big-government legislature, those days are quickly disappearing.

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About the Author

Melanie Harmon is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.