Colorado voters can decide in November whether to keep their refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or let the state keep the money to improve transportation, K-12 schools and higher education.

But Proposition CC, which poses that choice, "is not an assault on TABOR," Democratic House Speaker KC Becker said during an hourlong debate Tuesday night in Colorado Springs. "Any change to TABOR will go to voters, and they will have a chance to weigh in."

Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action, disagreed, however, during the debate at the Penrose House.

Prop CC "does not fix the problem. We have to prioritize the state budget we have," Fields said.

If Proposition CC is passed, eliminating the refunds in perpetuity, the state would get about $600 million in the first two years, state economists said.

TABOR limits state budget growth using a formula based on population and inflation. If the state collects more revenue than TABOR allows, it’s refunded to the taxpayers. That’s only happened nine times since state voters passed TABOR in 1992.

In 2020, taxpayers would get a refund of about $38 each. Then, if passed, Prop CC would take effect in 2021.

Colorado’s booming economy and population growth mean the state is generating more money from income taxes but can’t keep it under TABOR, Becker said. "You’re not allowed to invest in the things that matter," such as roads, schools and universities.

If voters approve the ballot measure, Becker said before the debate, the money could only be used for one-time expenses, such as air conditioners for schools, school buses, teacher retention and recruitment, scholarships for college students or road and bridge repairs.

Since Prop CC revenue can’t go to ongoing costs, such as teacher pay or bonding for roads, Fields said, the state instead needs to prioritize expenditures in its budget, which has grown by about $1 billion a year over the past 10 years.

"We have to prioritize the state budget we have," he said.

But most counties, cities and school districts across the state have obtained voter permission to waive TABOR refunds in favor of spending the money for critical local needs, Becker noted.

Fields said some Prop CC backers say this is only a first step to repealing TABOR.

"I would trust my locality more than the state," he said. "They’re more accountable," and the state has shown it will say one thing and do another.

Asked during the debate what happens if Prop CC passes, Fields predicted much bigger battles for tax increases and big money to repeal TABOR. If it fails? “We’ll be in a much better place.”

Becker said Prop CC would produce “a more prosperous Colorado,” more investments in higher ed, and a better K-12 system that will allow schools to invest in teachers and classrooms. If it fails? “We will see continued degradation in our roads,” in part because the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and cars are becoming more fuel efficient, leading to less gas tax revenue.

State government has a responsibility, Fields said in closing. “You have to look at whether they’re using the money effectively,” which he said is not the case. “Growth isn’t necessarily the problem. We have the resources to fix this. The Legislature and governor should step up and do it.” And TABOR has worked well for Colorado for 27 years, he added.

“There’s just one limited proposal in front of you today,” Becker said. “If Colorado is not doing a better job (with) roads and bridges, we will not get to keep being the No. 1 economy in the country. Businesses will not invest in a state that isn’t investing in itself. What prosperous states do is invest in areas that need it.”

The debate was sponsored by The Gazette, KOAA News5 and the El Pomar Foundation.

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