When it comes to a budget, every family and business knows that having clear priorities matters, especially in an economic downturn. The same is true for our state government: a budget is the most tangible expression of political values and priorities. Republicans have said for weeks that Democrats — who control the state House, Senate, and Governorship — must not balance Colorado’s budget on the backs of the most vulnerable — that includes our students and our seniors. How’s that going?
Since the Jared Polis shutdown began, news reports have emerged suggesting Democrats planned to defund property tax reductions for seniors and disabled veterans. In law this reduction is called the “Senior Homestead Property Exemption”, but it also applies to totally disabled veterans. It isn’t an ‘exemption’ in the sense of giving seniors relief from property tax, it simply reduces the amount qualified seniors and totally disabled veterans have to pay.
This tax reduction is especially important to those seniors whose homes have dramatically increased in value over the years (and are thus liable to ever-increasing property taxes) even as their earning potential has been curtailed. They have paid their fair share of property taxes. But they are also the people hardest hit by COVID-19 and therefore less likely to return to work or take new work.
Totally disabled veterans have paid a terrible price for their service to all of us; a tax reduction seems a small but deserved token of our gratitude. For many of these citizens, the property tax reduction is the difference between enjoying their later years in the family home where children were raised and memories made, and a future where they are forced to leave beloved neighbors, friends, and the tangible reminder of a lifetime’s work. The relatively meager help we provide seniors and disabled vets is not large — but our willingness to offer it says a lot about our values and priorities.
In the House budget debate last week, Republicans offered nearly 60 amendments designed to ensure the money for seniors and disabled vets would be there. We were concerned because the budget first presented to us contained a line item with a nonspecific future reduction of a little over $200 million (the senior/vet reduction is about $160 million). Democrats denied they planned to slash the senior reduction, but when challenged to pledge on the record that it would be kept, not one of them came forward. Even though they’ve yet to introduce the bill containing the $200 million reduction, Republicans are prepared to do all in their power to stop it.
It didn’t have to be this way. Since 2016-17, the Colorado budget has increased 24% and General Fund revenues have gone up 25%. The governor’s original 2020-21 budget called for an additional billion dollars in spending. Thanks to the Trump economy, in the past two years we’ve had an initial revenue surplus of nearly $2 billion dollars. Yet in this same time span, state population has grown a relatively modest 4%. So where has the money gone? Sadly, nearly unbridled Democrat spending has left us unprepared to face today’s challenges, many of them imposed by our governor.
Most of our budget amendments were designed to protect the senior reduction and education funding, but Democrats have other priorities. Like giving tax credits to people wealthy enough to buy a $60,000 Tesla. Like making sure the governor has state-funded planes at his disposal. Like providing college loans and grants to those in our country illegally. Like unionizing state workers. Like using taxpayer money to fund trial lawyers who will fight for anyone facing eviction (gee, that won’t raise the cost of renting, will it?). Like providing special interest groups with a host of financial grants for various homeless projects. The list could go on.
Governor Polis’ extended shutdown of the state economy has decimated state revenues. The lockdown has been a crushing blow to individuals, families, and small businesses from urban Denver to the rural areas. His misguided ‘one size fits all’ approach has created unnecessary hardships, and his decision to bypass the Legislature and distribute nearly $1.6 billion in federal money on his own is unwise and contradicts his April 17 statement about his plan to get the Legislature involved. This has muddied the waters when it comes to the budget, and legislators are faced with a $3 billion-plus shortfall. But no one should pity us. Our budgeting challenges pale in comparison to the hardships faced by the multitude of those struggling to put food on the table, pay a mortgage, or keep a small business alive.
Make no mistake, state revenues have been hurt by the governor’s prolonged and ‘blunt-force’ shutdown. The damage is likely to continue. But we still have a lot of money; the question is, do we have the right priorities? Do we have the will and character to fund adequately our children, seniors and disabled vets? Colorado is at a crossroads.
Patrick Neville is a member of the Colorado House of Representatives from the 45th District. He is minority leader of the House GOP.