With officials throughout Colorado grappling with their greatest economic challenges since the Great Depression, a group of conservatives believe the time’s ripe to deliver what opponents say is a potentially lethal blow to local and state governments.
A trio of initiatives that are making their way toward the November 2010 ballot would roll back property tax rates, reduce the amount of income tax paid by residents; severely restrict the ability of governments to borrow money; drastically reduce fees and taxes associated with the registration and purchase of vehicles; and eliminate fees tacked onto cell phones, pagers, and satellite and Internet services.
If the ballot proposals make it onto next year’s 2010 ballot, local and state governments could see their revenues drop by more than $2 billion.
Gov. Bill Ritter, who is trying to plug a $1 billion shortfall in the current state budget, called them “dangerous” in a talk he gave this week at the annual conference of county officials held in Colorado Springs.
The backers of the initiatives have turned in petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office. Roughly 140,000 signatures have beem gathered for each of the three proposals, twice the roughly 76,000 needed.
The Secretary of State’s Office is reviewing the petitions and may announce as early as today whether one or more of the proposals have an adequate number of signatures to be placed on the ballot. Once on the ballot, they will become known as Amendment 60, Amendment 61 and Proposition 101.
Two anti-government activists whose voter-approved amendments have radically changed the shape of local and state government in Colorado have been linked to the three initiatives, including Colorado Springs resident Douglas Bruce and Denver-area resident Freda Poundstone.
“He mentioned that he had a plan for Colorado and this may be that plan,” said El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen.
Bruce, who wrote the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights restricting government spending, distanced himself from the initiatives during a telephone interview. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” he said.
Freda Poundstone, who authored an amendment in the 1970s that kept the city and county of Denver from annexing land in nearby counties without a vote, is listed on papers filed with the Secretary of State’s Office in connection with an initiative that will be called Proposition 101.
A political consultant and former mayor of Greenwood Village, Poundstone also declined to talk about specifics. “You know, that’s something I’m not discussing until we get it on the ballot. Good-bye.”
The proponents of Amendment 60 are listed as Bonnie Solan, an accountant from Black Hawk, and Louis Schroeder of Greenwood Village, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Solan, reached by telephone, said she was rushing out the door to a Republican gathering and didn’t have time to discuss the issue. She added Douglas Bruce had no role in the development of her proposal.
“It was Lou Schroeder and myself,” she said. “I’m a Republican and Lou’s a Democrat. It was a bipartisan effort. If the people get to choose what they want to have done with their property taxes, there we go.”
Tyler Chafee, a spokesman for Protect Colorado’s Communities, an organization of business interests and community leaders who have formed to fight the initiatives, said it doesn’t really matter who’s behind them.
“What matters is who’s paying the bills,” he said. “We have no idea who’s funding the campaigns.”
John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University, said the three initiatives collectively would gut higher education, the ability of the state to maintain and expand its roadway system and severely cripple public health programs.
“These initiatives pose to the voters in a stark fashion whether they want the world of Douglas Bruce or an efficient and functioning government system,” he said.
Colorado Counties Inc., an organization that represents hundreds of elected officials from around the state, this week voted unanimously to oppose the three initiatives and agreed to contribute up to $10,000 toward an effort that initially would include a review of the signature-gathering processes.
El Paso County Commissioners Amy Lathen, Jim Bensberg and Dennis Hisey, fiscal conservatives and ardent opponents of big government, were among those who voted to fight the three initiatives.
“They’ve thrown too much in the stew,” said Hisey. “They’re asking for too much and taking things too far.”
Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst based in Denver,, has doubts about whether voters will approve the initiatives. “I don’t know if voters are in the mood to vastly increase TABOR or have the appetite to let Doug Bruce run further amok.”
James Jacobs, a public policy consultant, who analyzed the three initiatives for Colorado Counties, Inc., estimated that state and local governments would lose more than $2 billion. Others have put an even higher price tag on the initiatives.
•Restores TABOR tax limits “that have been violated, changed, or weakened” without voter approval. •Essentially revokes “de-Brucing.”
•Sets limits of four years for future “de-Brucing” actions.
•For school districts, cuts current mill levy rates in half over 10-year period. Revenue to be replaced by state aid.
•Allows petitions in all districts for elections to lower property taxes.
•Sets expiration dates for certain tax rate and revenue increases.
•Applies a ten-year limit on future property tax increases.
•Eliminates ability to extend expiring property taxes without an election.
•Requires local governments and other entities to get voter approval before borrowing money.
• Requires local governments to repay debt within 10 years and limits amount of debt they can issue. After the debts are paid off, reduces the tax rates of the local entities.
• Prohibits borrowing in any form by state government.
• Bans state from using financial instruments called ‘revenue anticipation notes’ and ‘certificates of participation’ for certain projects.
•Lowers state income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent, further reducing it to 3.5 percent over a10-year period.
•Sets yearly registration, license and total charges at $10 per vehicle.
• Eliminates FASTER fees.
•Exempts $10,000 in new vehicle costs from sales tax.
•Eliminates sales tax on rental vehicles.
•Ends charges and fees, except 911, on telecommunication customer accounts.
•Requires that any additional charges be considered tax increases.