By THOMAS E. CRONIN and ROBERT D. LOEVY
Colorado’s Capitol is bursting with new energy and legislators starting their 4 ½-month session, which should see them craft and send their own taxing proposals to voters rather than leaving it to well-funded interest groups to initiate tax measures for our ballots.
Our system calls for elected representatives to formulate policies to promote the public interest. But too often our legislators have not lived up to our ideals, especially when it comes to fiscal policy.
Legislators fear the wrath of voters if they try to raise taxes. So private interest groups, usually those that would benefit financially, petition tax increases onto the ballot and work to get them passed.
Colorado voters usually reject them, as they did two proposals on the Nov. 6 midterm ballot. But sometimes voters pass them, and the state is stuck for years with what interest groups wanted rather than tax policies written by elected legislators.
The Nov. 6 election, for example, approached with general agreement that Colorado needed to spend more money on roads and highways to ease increasing traffic congestion, especially on Interstate 25 between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. Toll lanes were seen as the answer.
The Legislature deliberated but put no proposal on the ballot. Interest groups moved into the vacuum and wrote Proposition 110, calling for increased sales tax for state, county and city roads as well as public transit. Voters nixed it by 59.4 percent.
Legislators should have and could have done a better job of reading the public’s mind. They’re our representatives.
A less ambitious tax proposal, limited to state roads and highways, stood a better chance of passing.
Coloradans also widely support better public school funding. Again, legislative inaction led to an initiated amendment on the ballot to increase state income taxes on the wealthy to help pay for education. Voters trounced that idea, too. As a constitutional amendment, it needed 55 percent approval; it got only 46.4 percent.
Again, legislators could have brought a better proposal, a more broadly financed bill taxing all income groups rather than the wealthy and corporations.
The Colorado Constitution, after all, places the responsibility to introduce revenue-raising measures in the state House of Representatives. The state Senate can amend such bills but cannot introduce them.
The Colorado House should start the process now to ensure that legislators make fiscal policy rather than ceding that responsibility to interest groups. The Joint Budget Committee, with its expertise and competent fiscal staff, should take the lead.
Bipartisan bills, representing both parties, stand a better chance of winning voter approval. If lawmakers’ efforts fail, they can try again in the next election.
The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights calls for a vote on tax increases. That vote should be initiated by our representatives. Let’s have our legislators organize and shape the state’s finances. Let’s reduce the opportunities for private interest groups, some with questionable motives, to push through taxing and spending policies because the Legislature failed to produce its own.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.