Springs Council rethinks TABOR repeal

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS — Standing in blowing snow outside Colorado Springs City Hall, anti-tax crusaders were steaming mad that City Council members were contemplating a repeal of TABOR, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights authored by former Rep. Doug Bruce.

Inside, Council members’ rigid support for TABOR repeal was melting away.

Colorado Springs is double hammered by the constraints of TABOR. It must toe the line under the local version approved by voters in 1991 as well as under the constitutional amendment that passed statewide in 1992.

“They think they’ve got Doug Bruce pretty whipped right now, but TABOR is bigger than Doug Bruce. It belongs to everyone here,” said Sean Paige of Local Liberty Action.

Joining Paige at the Jan. 12 press conference were former Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany and Daniel Cole, of Citizens for Cost Effective Government; Jim Pfaff, of Americans for Prosperity; Paul Kleinschmidt, of Taxpayers for Budget Reform; and Jim Marvin, of Citizens for Your Right to Vote.

McElhany also serves on the 24-member Sustainable Funding Committee, which conceived the idea of de-Brucing the city. McElhany, however, was the only committee member to vote against the proposed TABOR-repeal ballot measure.

“We take our TABOR protections very seriously here,” said McElhany. “The economy is terrible… It’s tough times for the city. It’s tough times for the people.”

“We need to keep the burden on taxpayers very low,” said Pfaff. “When the city or state needs extra funds, they can ask taxpayers.”

Paige said one argument for repeal is that “TABOR unfairly counts federal dollars against the TABOR spending cap.”

When every community may soon be vying for federal stimulus money, he said, Colorado Springs might have to turn down federal money because of the local TABOR.

The state TABOR amendment does not include federal funds in the spending cap. The Colorado Springs TABOR limits the growth of government spending to the increase in assessed value of the city and population growth. Both versions of TABOR require that any proposed tax increase be subject to the vote of the electorate.

Instead of asking voters to repeal TABOR — which many folks predict would go down to defeat — the coalition suggested modifying it to exempt federal funds from TABOR spending caps.

The coalition’s proposed ballot question is:

“Shall the city charter be amended to exempt federal funds, including those going to city enterprises, from being counted as part of the spending limitations formula specified in the city Taxpayers Bill of Rights, and (as) well as for the purpose of determining enterprise status?”

The anti-tax coalition’s proposal apparently thawed the council’s rigid anti-TABOR stance.

The council asked legal counsel to draft a ballot measure that asks voters to amend — not repeal — TABOR to exempt federal funds from the spending cap. It is one of several ballot issues proposed for the April 7 municipal election.

Paige and the coalition leaders remain vigilant, waiting to review the city attorney’s proposed ballot question language. They want to be certain there is no wording that could further weaken TABOR.

“We need to keep our city TABOR for insurance,” said Paige, who believes the state amendment is vulnerable to a repeal effort in the near future. That intention was signaled, he said, by “Gov. Bill Ritter’s attack against TABOR in his State of the State address last week.”

“If TABOR could have been killed here — its birthplace — it would have been more vulnerable to a statewide repeal,” Paige said.

El Paso County voters soundly rejected a 1-cent tax increase this past November that would have generated an estimated $72 million in revenue each year. Of that, 33 percent — an estimated $23.4 million — would have been allocated to Colorado Springs.

McElhany and Cole, of Citizens for Cost Effective Government, campaigned vigorously against the sales tax increase.

The electorate rejected the proposed tax increase 60 percent to 40 percent. Of the 245,086 votes cast, 147,118 voted against it.

The county and city voters have a reputation for opposing tax increases — and rightly so. But perhaps the voters are more judicious than stingy. In the past, they voted to override TABOR to allow the city to fund improvement projects.

In 1998, voters approved a request to retain $6.6 million from the 1997 TABOR refund to taxpayers. The funds were used for five projects that included the creation and maintenance of parks, bike paths and trails. The following year, they approved $88 million in municipal bonds to fund 29 capital improvement projects.

“The wisdom of TABOR is the wisdom of citizens,” said Pfaff. “Without TABOR, government growth tends to far outpace inflation and population growth by taking opportunities away from citizens through higher taxes and fees. And when a legislative body proposes to work outside of TABOR limits, the people can decide at the ballot box.

“This is a fair and efficient way to deal with special budget needs — and it rightly forces government to live within its means,” said Pfaff.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com