The secret to Colorado’s economic success? The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights
Authors: Jennifer Schubert-Akin, Amy Oliver Cooke - June 6, 2018 - Updated: June 6, 2018
The latest Census Bureau data released earlier this year shows that Colorado’s population has grown by nearly two-thirds since 1992, one of the fastest increases in the country.
If you are part of the more than 2 million new residents who have arrived over this time, there are a few things you should know: Avoid I-70 on Sundays. We are Coloradans, not Coloradoans. And the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is responsible for much of the state’s economic success, which likely drew you here in the first place.
Between 1992 and 2016, median household income in Colorado grew by 30 percent, adjusted for inflation. This growth was more than double the national rate over the same period. Only Minnesota and North Dakota grew by more than 30 percent over this timeframe. Colorado gained $20 billion in adjusted gross income over these years — again, one of the biggest increases in the nation.
While many other states have struggled with stagnant incomes over this period, what’s set Colorado apart? Its Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), passed in 1992, which requires state and local governments to ask voters for permission before raising taxes or debt.
TABOR helped end years of economic stagnation and laid the groundwork for the state’s future success by keeping resources in the hands of Colorado residents who could put them to their highest valued use and checking over-zealous government spending.
TABOR has protected pocketbooks and state solvency from legislators who believe they know how to spend your money better than you. Its requirement that excess revenues must be refunded to taxpayers has also resulted in more than $2 billion being returned to the private economy to be spent at local businesses or saved for retirement.
With the exceptions of a tobacco tax hike in 2004 and a marijuana tax after voters legalized it, TABOR has empowered voters to reject roughly a dozen advocacy-backed tax hike proposals.
That’s what makes the recent effort by Colorado’s Supreme Court to further chip away at the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights so disappointing. The court ruled in April that the legislature’s move to standardize sales tax exemptions was not in violation of TABOR despite the fact that it resulted in a revenue gain – a tax increase for those of us paying the bill.
This was just the latest effort by the courts to weaken TABOR. Most notably, they have authorized the implementation of a myriad of state “fees,” which are simply taxes by another name. These include the dreaded FASTER vehicle registration fees, which go against the spirit of TABOR if not the letter.
TABOR is also regularly attacked by progressive advocacy groups, the mainstream media and the state legislature, which would like nothing more than to eliminate this check on its power. They all frequently use TABOR as a scapegoat for the state’s problems, whether real or imagined.
A Denver Post editorial last year complained, “TABOR’s powerful check on government spending in reality has been a padlock on the purse-strings of the General Assembly.” The check on spending is exactly the point, and it still allows spending to grow in line with inflation and population growth. If government wants more money, all it has to do is ask. Requiring consent is hardly a “padlock.”
In an effort to preserve and even expand the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the Independence Institute and Steamboat Institute are partnering with several organizations to go on a statewide TABOR road show. With speakers such as well-known economist Dan Mitchell, our goal is to educate both Colorado natives and newcomers about TABOR’s role in creating their current opportunities. It will stop in Steamboat Springs, Aspen, and Durango next week.
The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is about consent of the governed and subjecting the government to the same spending discipline that the rest of us in the real world face every day. As Colorado’s population growth demonstrates, giving people a vote on their fiscal futures seems to cause them to vote with their feet.