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Noonan: TABOR is 25 and too alive and too well

Author: Paula Noonan - April 7, 2017 - Updated: April 10, 2017

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Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Colorado’s population in 1992 was 3.5 million. Census projections put the state’s population in 2017 at 5.5 million. In 1992, 812,308 citizens — 53.68 percent of voters — said yes to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), and 700,906 citizens — 46.32 percent of voters — said no.

Not to make too fine a point, but the 1.5 million 1992 voters on TABOR would comprise 27 percent of today’s population. And many of those 1.5 million people are no longer living in Colorado. Yet here we are, 25 years later, juggling TABOR limitations at the Capitol.

As background, the state in 1992 was in a deep recession from the oil and real estate bust of the 1980s. Front Range citizens especially were in an economic pit.

Downtown Denver was a dump: no Coors Field, no Pepsi Center, no new Mile High Stadium, no new Auraria Campus, no lightrail, no fancy Union Station, no pedestrian bridge over to the Highlands, no condos in LoDo or RiNo, downtown shopping fleeing to the suburbs, and prominent Denver retail names gone bankrupt.

Colorado Springs was hit hard as its real estate expansion of the ’80s died. Banks were on the brink of going out of business across the state.

After the anti-tax 1992 TABOR vote, Denver metro citizens did a 180-degree reverse and voted to build Denver International Airport. Then citizens voted for Coors Field and Mile High Stadium. With help from Gov. Bill Owens, RTD got a tax for light rail.

These investments set the stage for Colorado’s current economic vibrancy. The investments occurred based on a good feature of TABOR — let the people decide what projects and programs merit their money. Yet TABOR’s bad features, still in place, are wreaking havoc on the state’s budget.

Senator Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, was among five legislators who voted against SB-254, the budget appropriations Long Bill. He’s asking people to take a long view back and forward: “It’s a vote to raise the TABOR issue once again. We’re not funding our schools, oil and gas inspectors, renewable energy, or filling in gaps from cuts from D.C.”

It’s esoteric for newcomers to know that Colorado’s current budget is based on the 2009-2010 recession years due to TABOR. “Unlike other states, because of TABOR’s ratchet down effect, Colorado doesn’t get to make up for downturns and come back,” says Kerr.

When the state gins up more tax revenues, as it has, the budget base doesn’t move up. Its budget level continues at the 2009-2010 recession point, forcing refunds of extra tax dollars.

The Hospital Provider Reimbursement Fee portrays the problem. The health care fees, considered a tax, push state revenues above TABOR limits. The Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee put up SB17-256 to reduce provider fees by $264 million, which causes an additional $264 million loss in federal matching funds.

The provider fee reimburses hospitals for delivering care to people who can’t pay. Without the fee, some hospitals, particularly in rural counties, don’t have enough money to operate. When those hospitals close, uninsured and insured alike lose care.

Four Democratic Senators, Irene Aguilar, Kerry Donovan, Matt Jones and Andy Kerr, and Republican Sen. Owen Hill, voted against the budget Long Bill. Also affected by TABOR is the ongoing $880 million annual negative factor that lowers public K-12 education spending. House members get to vote next.

So the question is, when will today’s citizens get the chance to vote on tax policy for today?

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.


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