Political Hay

Repealing the Bill of Rights

For taxpayers, that is. Nice going in a recession, Gov. Ritter.

By 2.2.09

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More than 15 years ago, Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) became a model of tax reform and fiscal responsibility. Coloradans have enjoyed an active role in where and how their tax dollars are spent, but liberals are crying foul in an economy where low revenue restricts them from spending on pet projects.

Also known as Article X of the Colorado state constitution, TABOR limits the growth of government by proportionally generating tax revenue during good times and decreasing during the bad. The crux of TABOR is simple: the state's tax revenue can grow no faster than inflation plus population growth, and anything representing a surplus must be either earmarked for future K-12 funding or refunded directly back to the taxpayers.

Though the law was approved by voters in 1992, liberals have consistently tried to erode it. The first attempt at watering it down came in 2000, when Democrats tacked on Amendment 23, mandating that K-12 spending increases every year, regardless of tax revenue. Though education spending enjoys broad popular support, fiscal conservatives could see TABOR creeping away from its mission.

TABOR also prevents legislators from spending additional funds on new programs without the taxpayers' approval in a referendum. One successful plea for more taxpayer money came in 2005, when lawmakers and then Gov. Bill Owens -- a onetime conservative hero -- claimed that the state was beginning to experience a recession and needed some help with things such as Medicaid and infrastructure. But the Independence Institute famously found, the state's needs included funding a great deal of waste (pdf).

Voters nevertheless approved Referendum C, giving TABOR a "five-year timeout" so that the state could fix its so-called problems and stop sending taxpayers their refund checks. Liberals were once again successful in chipping away at the law that kept them from their tradition of spending frivolously. With the five years coming to an end in 2010, some Colorado legislators are looking to take not just another big chunk, but to repeal TABOR altogether.

In the 2009 state budget presented on January 26, Gov. Bill Ritter incited panic among the legislature when he listed the programs needed in these dark economic times: a complete "greening" of public buildings, modernization of state agencies, and millions of dollars for "Neighborhood Restabilization" to families about to undergo foreclosure -- among many other so-called necessities. During his state of the state address just a few weeks ago, Ritter stated that TABOR is a "statutory straightjacket that makes modern, sensible, and value-based budgeting an impossibility." Calls to repeal TABOR have been ringing throughout the state capitol ever since.

Before taxpayer's rights are completely taken off the table, perhaps the governor should take a page from the example of Colorado Springs, a large suburb just an hour and half south of Denver. The city had its own version of TABOR and like many American cities was mired in recession. But officials there decided against raising taxes.

State Senator Andy McElhaney (R-Colorado Springs), said that even though the economy is terrible, there is no need to further burden taxpayers. "It's tough times for the city, [and] tough times for the people."

What Gov. Ritter and fellow liberals don't understand is that taxpayers are hurting in the recession too. Taxpaying families should not be forced to cough up extra money in hard times -- particularly when they have already passed laws like TABOR to protect their paychecks.

Call it an assault on the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

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About the Author

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