Mill Levy Freeze will continue says court ruling

A state law that last year had Colorado property taxpayers shelling out $118 million more than they might have otherwise will stand, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The ruling means that the so-called “mill-levy freeze” approved by the Legislature in 2007 at the behest of Gov. Bill Ritter will continue. The measure was expected to draw about $1.7 billion from local taxpayers, allowing more state general-fund money to be used on other purposes.

Ritter, several elected officials, including state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, and several education organizations, hailed the ruling as a win for Colorado children, families and schools.

Attorney General John Suthers, the lone Republican statewide elected official, however, called the ruling “a fundamental erosion of Colorado taxpayers’ rights.”

The 6-1 majority of the state high court ruled that the Colorado constitution’s requirement that tax increases be approved by voters was satisfied by elections in which voters in school districts agreed to lift revenue limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Justice Allison Eid was the lone dissenter from the ruling.

“The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is on life support, and the principle of fiscal restraint is in full retreat,” state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said when the decision was announced.

Senate President Peter Groff, a Denver Democrat, said the ruling was a win, “especially for Colorado’s children. If Colorado is to compete in a global economy, we cannot allow education to continue to go underfunded, and the ruling today affirms an important step forward.”

The ruling overturned a finding by a Denver district judge that the freeze was unconstitutional because it ran afoul of TABOR requirements, because the freeze amounted to a net revenue gain to the state.

The trial judge “did not have the benefit of our recent decision,” Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey wrote, that a statute challenged under the requirements of TABOR “must be proven to be unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The trial judge, Denver District Judge Christine Habas, erroneously relied on an interpretive guideline in TABOR calling for laws to be interpreted to reasonably restrain the growth of government.”

Mesa County filed suit in late 2007 after the Legislature passed and Ritter signed Senate Bill 199, which set into place the mill-levy freeze.

The county and six other plaintiffs contended that the freeze amounted to a tax increase without constitutionally required voter approval.

The freeze affected 148 of the state’s 178 school districts, those that had approved waivers lifting revenue caps set in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which was approved by voters in 1992.

Property tax rates actually will fall as a result of the ruling in 34 school districts, the Colorado Association of School Boards said.

The Colorado Education Association said the decision would allow for expanding quality pre-school and full-day kindergarten, increasing the number of counselors in secondary schools and in closing achievement gaps.

“Without this funding, our public schools would be facing even more cutbacks in state monies for programs and staff,” CEA President Beverly Ingle said.

State Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, however, said the ruling “shows a blatant disregard” for the constitution “and the taxpayers of this state who simply want to be asked first before they are taxed.”


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