Is TABOR hurting education and infrastructure in Colorado?

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DENVER – November’s midterm election will again bring tax-hike ballot issues to voters in Colorado, which have reignited what seems to be a never-ending debate in the state: Is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) a helpful measure to protect taxpayers from their government’s spending habits or is it kneecapping the state’s education and infrastructure?

Ask most anyone you find on the street and they will tell you how much they hate paying taxes. They say the government takes too much from their paychecks and doesn’t spend the money wisely enough for those chunks of change to be justified.

But others say that people complain about taxes – which fund most public projects – without realizing their necessity, and still others say they believe upper-earners don’t pay enough when compared to people who are just scraping by.

And then there’s Douglas Bruce, who hated taxes so much he convinced Colorado voters in 1992 to limit the amount of tax revenue the state could keep each year by passing TABOR.

TABOR puts revenue camps of the amount of taxes the state can keep each year by using a formula that essentially boils down to this: Population Growth + Inflation = Revenue Caps.

Colorado typically sees those caps grow by between 4 and 6 percent each year. So once tax revenues hit that magic number, the state has to give all the additional revenue back to taxpayers or ask them to keep it.

Another facet is TABOR is that voters must approve any kind of tax hike – whether it be property, sales or incomes taxes. That takes those decisions out of the hands of state lawmakers, who often decide to hike or reduce taxes for their constituents in other states.

“The accountability of going to voters is what’s popular about [TABOR],” said Henry Sobanet, who is now the chief financial officer of the Colorado State University System. He is the former director of the state Office of State Planning and Budgeting under Govs. John Hickenlooper and Bill Owens.

Metro State political science professor Dr. Norman Provizer and University of Denver finance professor Mac Clouse both agree that is among the most popular aspects of TABOR.

Douglas Bruce, the man behind TABOR, maintains to this day that his law (Bruce’s license plate reads “MR TABOR”) is “an ongoing success” despite criticism of it.

“Taxes are either limited or they’re unlimited,” he said.

Bruce says he believes that he should be credited for what he sees as Colorado’s success under TABOR and not only criticized. But he and his measure have plenty of critics.

“If you’re going to be selling a product, selling it as a bill of rights for people – for taxpayers – is not a bad idea,” Provizer said. “It was a great sales job but a bad thing to be selling.”

For one, some critics argue that the overall savings for taxpayers hasn’t added up to enough to offset what they say are shortfalls in funding for other necessary items and projects in Colorado.

Since 1992, according to bipartisan watchdog groups, TABOR has saved Colorado taxpayers about $3 billion – which amounts to an average of $900 per taxpayer over the past 25 years.

Critics say that money could have been better spent elsewhere, like on education initiatives and road infrastructure.

“I think it did dramatically affect that,” Sobanet said of Colorado’s per-pupil funding rates, which are among the lowest in the nation.

“If I said to you, ‘I think the legislature should be able to fix the School Finance Act next year.’ In 49 other states that sounds like regular, everyday operating procedure,” Sobanet said. “In Colorado, that’s actually radical politics.”

Take Adams County District 27J for instance, where voters have repeatedly rejected school spending measures to the point where the district has gone to four-day weeks because it can’t afford a five-day week.

“School boards can’t vote on a tax increase and then impose it on the people,” said Provizer. “They have to go to the voters.”

It’s something residents have noticed too.

“I think there’s a lot in Colorado, especially now with so many people coming here, that could be improved infrastructure-wise, with streets and roads and schools especially,” said TJ Jones. “I think that if that money could go into those programs, I don’t see a negative to it.”

“I would have it go more towards schools and roads rather than giving it back to me,” said Kerri Kirkhuff.

There is a loophole in TABOR that gives Colorado another way to raise money if people aren’t voting to raise their taxes: fees. They aren’t called taxes so they don’t fall under TABOR, and though some of them have been challenged under TABOR, many have been upheld.

Critics of TABOR also feel emboldened that no other state has adopted the same model as Colorado’s since 1992.

“If it’s such a great idea, why is it always rejected everywhere else?” Provizer said.

“Going to a vote of the people every time you need an adjustment is hard and expensive,” said Sobanet.

But Bruce argues that he never said it should be the only model for other states and notes that despite the opposition, TABOR has yet to be rejected or repealed outright.

“They said if this passes in 1992, when the Pope comes to Colorado in 1993 for World Youth Day he would probably be assassinated because there would be no police in Denver,” Bruce scoffed. “They said it was the end of the world. The governor said Colorado would be closed for business, we would be shut down. … TABOR has been an unqualified success to the extent that it has been allowed to be enforced.”

Sobanet says that Bruce has a point that the law hasn’t been repealed.

“Even the strong detractors of the TABOR law, I haven’t heard very many of them say it should go away,” Sobanet said. “That is literally the political debate of our time.”

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