TABOR under fire as ‘fiscal dysfunction’

After nearly 19 years since voters approved it, a bipartisan group of Colorado residents is challenging the constitutionality of the popular Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.

TABOR, which Colorado voters approved in 1992 to limit how much money the state can collect and spend, has finally gotten to the point that it’s interfering with the Legislature’s ability to function as a representative form of government, its plaintiffs said in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Denver.

“Since the passage of TABOR in 1992, the state of Colorado has experienced a slow, inexorable slide into fiscal dysfunction,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed by 34 people, including several current and former state and local lawmakers. “Deterioration of the state’s funding base has been slowed by many attempts to patch, cover over or bypass the straightjacket (sic) of TABOR. However, events have demonstrated that a Legislature unable to raise and appropriate funds cannot meet its primary constitutional obligations or provide services that are essential for a state.”

The 34 plaintiffs include such people as former state Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, and current Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. Twenty of them are Democrats, 12 are Republicans and two are unaffiliated voters.

They include representatives of various county commissions, city councils and school districts around the state. All hail from the Front Range except for one, Robin Crossan, a member of the RE-2 Board of Education in Steamboat Springs.

The group said that TABOR is so bad, no other state in the nation has mimicked Colorado, which they said has become a national example on how not to govern.

“States from coast to coast have considered proposals modeled after TABOR, but rejected them because of the bad consequences they see for economic development and education,” said Anderson, a former majority leader in the Colorado House and Senate. “When Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed similar legislation a couple of weeks ago, she called TABOR Colorado’s ‘failed experiment.’ “

The plaintiffs point to the state’s need to slash state programs by the millions in recent years, something that wouldn’t have happened had the Legislature still had the ability to raise taxes without a vote of the people.

Numerous Republicans in the Legislature, however, said that restriction has saved the state during the recent recession. Without it, Colorado would have had to slash its budgets by billions more than it has in recent years.

“While I respect Senator Anderson very much, I do not agree with her, or the other lawsuit proponents, that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights has a constitutional flaw because it requires voter approval of tax increases,” said House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

“In fact, I view the requirement that voters approve tax increases as the most crucial component of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.”

Other Republicans were up in arms over the matter, too, saying Democrats were only trying to return to a time when the Legislature could raise taxes at will.

“The argument is wrapped up in fairly lofty terms, but ultimately, it’s just snake oil. I won’t buy it,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton. “While gutting the citizens’ right to veto tax increases is bad enough, there is more at play here. The Legislature derives its powers from the consent of the governed. This lawsuit suggests that we should turn that on its head and remove from the people the power to put a check on their Legislature.”

Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said if the suit is successful, it not only will overturn TABOR, but put into question the citizens’ initiative process.

They also said because the matter is in federal court, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could impact the initiative process in 20 other states.

“Since 1912, Coloradans have had the right to change state statutes and the Constitution via the initiative process,” said Gardner, an attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“If the federal courts decide that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is unconstitutional because it passed by a vote of the people instead of the General Assembly, then everything from the repeal of prohibition to civil rights amendments will be called into question.”


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