It seems like just yesterday to us that Colorado voters adopted the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights on the statewide ballot and ensconced it into the state’s constitution. Yet, the groundbreaking policy has been in effect for nearly three decades.
In that time, it has kept state and local government on a diet — and has saved taxpayers untold millions of dollars. And they still love it after all these years, as most credible polls show.
Perhaps more noteworthy: Even some political leaders on the center-left seem to have made their peace with the policy. Our reputedly liberal Democratic governor from Boulder went so far as to laud it just the other day. That’s quite a stride.
Best known by its acronym “TABOR,” it was bitterly opposed by the political establishment — a number of Republicans as well as most Democrats — at the time of its passage in 1992. It is still resented by left-leaning interest groups for its infringement, as they see it, on their ability to lobby for more and bigger government programs. And plenty of elected officials of every stripe continue to chafe at its restraints on their power over the public purse. A federal lawsuit against the constitutional amendment filed by some liberal stakeholders continues to crawl along.
Yet, TABOR’s basic premise has always made perfect sense to the general public. It requires voter approval for any tax hike at any level of government in the state. And it set limits on the rate at which government budgets can grow. Any increase in tax revenue that exceeds the rates of growth plus inflation in a given year have to be returned to taxpayers. Elected leaders can keep the overage if they first ask voters’ permission.
Curbed by unfriendly courts; artfully dodged by policy makers who have figured out clever and disingenuous end runs, TABOR doesn’t have the impact it could have — and never was the bogeyman its detractors made it out to be. Yet, it is still having much of its intended effect.
Which is why Coloradans are now about to receive a tax refund, thanks to TABOR and the wisdom of an earlier generation of voters who first embraced it.
As reported in Friday’s Gazette, State Controller Bob Jaros informed elected leaders in a letter last week that Colorado took in $453.6 million more during fiscal year 2021 than TABOR allows. So, it will be returned to its rightful owners via refunds and a temporary cut in the state income tax. Taxpayers who filed income taxes jointly will receive an average of $166 back, while the estimate for those filing singly is $69.
It’s a reminder of TABOR’s inherent wisdom. Gov. Jared Polis’ response, meanwhile, offers an illustration of how much the political class, particularly Democrats, has evolved on the subject.
“Our strong economic growth gives us an income tax cut from 4.55% to 4.50% next year," Polis said in a statement released to the press. "These tax cuts and refunds are a strong sign that Colorado’s economy is roaring back, I’m excited that Coloradans will get another income tax cut and refund that Coloradans can put toward bouncing back from the pandemic, a night out or groceries.”
Polis’ enthusiasm and word choice — his is “excited that Coloradans will get another income tax cut and refund” — is something you might expect to see on a GOP campaign mailer in a legislative district in Castle Rock or Colorado Springs.
Of course, this is the same chief exec who turned heads recently with his call for eliminating the state’s income tax altogether.
“In effect, when you tax something, you penalize it,” the governor told a conference at the Steamboat Institute. “And there are things you might want to penalize as a society, like pollution. But if we can move away from taxing things like income — which you don’t want to discourage — to something we fundamentally don’t want, then you’ll have a more pro-growth tax structure that gets the right incentives in place.”
Polis’ own, distinctive twist on Democratic policy aside, a broader evolution just might be underway among our elected leadership. What a turnabout from the days of Democratic former Gov. Roy Romer, who warned in 1992 that Colorado would have to post “going out of business” signs if TABOR passed. In fairness to him, almost all elected Democrats were against it back then, as well. So were some prominent Republicans.
As noted, it all seems like just yesterday — and yet, in another way, so very long ago. We welcome the next-gen take on TABOR among some of our elected leaders. The renewed respect for the taxpaying public is refreshing.
Comments are open to Gazette subscribers only