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TABOR reform bill passes Colorado House, but with less GOP support

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A measure that would reform the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, passed the House on Thursday, but not before losing some Republican support.

The bill – which is sponsored by two somewhat maverick Republicans on the subject – passed the Democratic-controlled House 39-26. It now heads to the Republican-majority Senate.

Only one other Republican joined Rep. Dan Thurlow R-Grand Junction, in supporting House Bill 1187, which would change how the state calculates its spending cap. Thurlow is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa.

Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, was a “yes” vote on Thursday.

The measure would allow government to grow when economic times are good by tying the state’s spending cap under TABOR to personal income rather than the current formula: inflation plus population change.

The bill lost the support of Republican Reps. Polly Lawerence of Littleton and Phil Covarrubias of Brighton, who supported the bill when it was in the Finance Committee.

Lawrence had wanted an amendment on the floor, which would have prioritized projects for spending. She didn’t want to find out that the money is fungible and promises would be broken. That amendment failed.

“Are we going to start making that down payment and meet the needs of the people all around Colorado, or are we going to just let this money flow into the general fund where little sticky fingers will put it wherever we want it?” Lawrence asked.

Covarrubias appeared ready to vote for the bill on the floor on Thursday after delivering a fiery speech.

“I represent all the people in my district. Not the … loudest. Not just the Republicans,” he said. “My goal here at the Capitol is not to play party games.

“For all the groups and the people out there that lie in the weeds just waiting to pounce, keep your pencils sharpened, because I’m just getting started.”

The Brighton Republican said he received calls and emails from groups calling him a “liberal Democrat in sheep’s clothing” after he supported the bill in committee. He said he is unsure which groups were contacting him.

But Covarrubias said it wasn’t the pressure from those groups that persuaded him to reverse course on the floor. After contacting about 1,500 constituents, Covarrubias said the response was overwhelmingly against the bill.

The first-year lawmaker also wanted to see Lawrence’s amendment pass.

“I’m not saying this TABOR bill was the fix all, be all,” he said. “What I am saying is we need to start this conversation.”

The bill would have to be referred to voters. It would only take a simple majority vote in both chambers to refer the issue.

Republicans hold only a one-seat majority in the Senate, so if the bill makes it to the Senate floor, there is a good chance it would pass both chambers with Crowder’s support. But getting to the Senate floor would be a feat.

It does not change a TABOR requirement that voters approve tax increases.

But it would decrease the state’s TABOR rebate obligation by nearly $133 million in the upcoming fiscal year and more than $209 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Individual rebates stemming from 2015 tax returns ranged from $13-$41.

“We will be raising taxes because we will be retaining money that would have otherwise been in the pockets of taxpayers,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument.

But Thurlow encouraged his Republican colleagues to think big and rise above the pressure from outside groups that judge lawmakers.

“What do you want your tombstone to say about your service here in the House?” Thurlow asked. “Did you do anything to move the ball forward? Or did you merely try to raise your score with a rating agency that works in this building and does not interact with the people of Colorado?”

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