Colorado’s most important political football is on the tee. The state Supreme Court soon could put the future of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in play or out of reach.
Liberals and conservatives are paying close attention, because TABOR controls how the state caps spending and government growth. Critics say it also hobbles Colorado’s ability to invest in schools, transportation and the other spoils of population growth.
Some critics want voters to decide this year if TABOR can be undone with a ballot initiative. Opponents and the law say TABOR is so big and multilayered that a single vote would violate the state’s “single subject rule” that says ballot questions can only take up one thing at a time.
“People put it in the Constitution as one measure; it seems like people ought to have the power to take it out as one measure,” said Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which filed the request with Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office to collect signatures to get it on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Taking TABOR apart in pieces would take years, if not decades, and more campaign money than I can imagine, so real change is going to take a broad swipe. What the Colorado Supreme Court decides is a big fiscal deal.
TABOR is to Colorado government and partisan interests what John Elway is to football.
And on the political playing field, with the left in the lead, TABOR foes feel it’s the right time to take down the conservatives’ coveted constitutional block between taxing and spending.
“Now is the time because people across Colorado are frustrated because we’ve got a lot of challenges that are resulting from the growth we’re experiencing, and we don’t have many tools to deal with them,” Hedges told me. “TABOR is more than 26 years old, passed in 1992, and it locks in the taxing system we had then.
“I think there are a lot of people today who look at that and say, ‘I don’t think that makes sense.’”
In 1992, when 23 percent of the Colorado electorate voted for Ross Perot and his anti-government economic ideas, a Donald Trump-like pitch man from Colorado Springs named Douglas Bruce wrote and led the crusade to pass TABOR.
Two years later, Colorado voters passed Referendum A, the rule that limits a ballot question to a single subject. TABOR and the single-subject rule have since survived a slew of direct and indirect court challenges.
A coalition of conservative groups has commissioned a poll that indicates broad public support for TABOR. The pack includes the usual fiscally conservative suspects: The Independence Institute, Americans for Prosperity — Colorado, Colorado Rising Action, SpringsTaxpayers.com and The Steamboat Institute.
Given the definition of TABOR, which requires a vote of the citizenry on tax matters, 71 percent of the 500 Coloradans who were polled liked what they heard.
“Consent matters,” Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president for The Independence Institute, said in a news release about the poll. “As some elected officials and special interest groups collude against taxpayers with plans to dismantle this wildly popular ... constitutional amendment, the results of this survey should give them pause. Attempts to weaken it or erode voter consent won’t be well-received by Coloradans.”
To get on the Nov. 5 ballot, proponents of any measure will need valid signatures from 124,632 Colorado voters. That represents 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the last secretary of state’s race. That’s also about 26,000 more signatures than required in the previous four years, because of the high 2018 turnout.
Getting on the ballot is one tough hurdle; selling the need is another.
Colorado has a transportation problem, but not even the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of partners could pass a sales tax increase last year to address it.
Without TABOR, Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office could make quick work of a tax increase to fight traffic jams. And they very likely would.
Broadly, TABOR could be the fight that Colorado Republicans need right now.
Smarting from losses across the electoral landscape in November, the Colorado GOP needs something to rally around. Though recent polling shows that most Colorado Republicans stand by President Trump, many GOP members on the ballot next year are tepid about hitching their wagon to that beast of burden.
But you won’t find many, if any, on the right who aren’t willing to go to war to defend TABOR.
“I think a lot of conservatives would be excited to have that battle,” said Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action and one of the brightest political minds around.
“TABOR is very popular, and when it’s ‘full repeal,’ it’s an easier argument. It unites the right when there’s too much infighting going on, on our side of the aisle.”
And for organizations such as his and The Independence Institute, it’s a rainmaker issue for anti-tax donors who might be dismayed by Colorado’s drift to the left.
Bringing that outside interest and money back to Colorado can’t be anything but good if you’re on the Republican side.
A lot of political dynamics are vying for attention at the local, state and national levels this spring, but this one is worth watching.
Contact Joey Bunch at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @joeybunch.