Death and taxes may well be life’s only two certainties in much of the world, but in Colorado, we can add one more thing to the list — fees. It’s why we urge a “yes” vote on Proposition 117 on the statewide ballot this fall. Our state’s elected officials figured out long ago that if you call something a fee instead of a tax, you can do an end-run on Colorado’s constitution — specifically, its voter-enacted provision known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. The amendment, adopted by the electorate in 1992, requires policy makers to get voter approval before raising taxes. But if a state or local government can claim a program supports itself through fees paid by users, rather than by taxes, the revenue generated by the program won’t count against annual limits imposed on tax revenue by TABOR. And it wouldn’t be subject to voter approval. It’s a Jedi budgeting trick that has been used to great effect, especially at the state level. It has taken billions of dollars a year in revenue offline and out from under the restrictions and accountability of the state’s operating budget. That revenue is generated by at least 16 state programs that qualify as “enterprises” — i.e., their budgets are substantially fee based — and include no less than all of Colorado state-run college and university systems. Proposition 117 would rein in this fast and loose approach to the public’s purse strings. It would require any new state enterprise that brings in over $100 million in fees during its first five years to go to a vote of the people. The proposal only applies to new state enterprises so that local governments would be unaffected; existing enterprises would be held harmless, too. So, if anything, 117 isn’t ambitious enough in stemming the fee-for-tax shell game, but it’s clearly a step in the right direction. None of which is to say enterprises aren’t sometimes warranted; many can and do provide vital services. They also encourage more functions of government to support themselves through their activities, which encourages efficiency.
Yet, if left unchecked, the fees that fund them can become a source of easy money for elected leaders, a sort of back-door budget that never has to pass muster with a public that may or may not support a given spending stream.
And the money isn’t subject to the taxing and spending limits voters approved in the first place.
Well over a generation ago, TABOR broke ground in Colorado by setting a new standard of accountability for government’s power to tax its citizens.
Vote yes on 117 to extend that accountability to fees. It’s the other side of the coin, after all.
And death and taxes are sobering enough.