DENVER - The Colorado Supreme Court's decision Monday could make it easier for the Legislature's Democratic majority to triumph in future cases dealing with the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, attorneys said.
In a 6-1 vote, the court upheld a 2007 law signed by Gov. Bill Ritter to freeze local property-tax rates and let the state spend the extra money collected when property values rise.
But the 45-page decision also affirms that the court will use the highest legal bar for lawsuits challenging the Legislature on TABOR issues. The court will assume the Legislature's decisions are constitutional unless a plaintiff proves otherwise "beyond a reasonable doubt," the highest legal standard of proof, Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey wrote in her opinion.
Republicans say one of their favorite parts of the state constitution is imperiled.
"There is a full-scale assault against TABOR. Fiscal restraint is in full retreat," said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.
TABOR has ruled Colorado politics since voters approved it in 1992. It restricts the amount of money the state can collect each year, and it requires voter approval for a "tax policy change directly causing a net tax revenue gain."
The Supreme Court interpreted that language for the first time Monday, Mullarkey wrote. The court will not require a vote of the people for any tax-policy changes that have a trivial impact on how much money the state collects.
That bodes well for backers of Senate Bill 228, which would repeal another state law known as the 6 percent limit. Republicans fiercely oppose the bill and say it should go to the voters.
"As I look at it at first blush, it looks to me like the court has said that as long as there's not a net revenue gain, this change that's being contemplated in (Senate Bill) 228 is something the court would support (as constitutional)," said Maureen Farrell of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, one of the lead groups behind the push to repeal the 6 percent law.
Additionally, the court affirmed it will use the "beyond a reasonable doubt" test to challenges to the Legislature over TABOR.
"That means that every benefit of the doubt will go now to the General Assembly," said Richard Westfall, the plaintiffs' lead attorney in the mill levy case.
The Supreme Court uses the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard when it really wants to oppose something, Westfall said.
The standard always has existed in state law, and the court has applied it in a few other cases, said Terrance Kelly, a TABOR opponent who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the mill levy case for Farrell's group.
TABOR says the courts should interpret it to "reasonably restrain most the growth of government." That's the standard Denver District Judge Christina Habas used last year when she ruled for Westfall's side in the mill-levy case.
But the state high court overruled Habas on Monday. The justices said the courts should interpret TABOR in harmony with other state laws, and the courts should give the Legislature the benefit of the doubt.
"It is going to be a significant factor in TABOR work," Kelly said.
Monday's lone dissenter, Justice Allison Eid, defended TABOR against the Legislature's powers.
"In my view, the presumption of constitutionality cannot be used as a cover to excise (TABOR) from our constitution. The wisdom of that constitutional provision is a question for the voters, not this court, to decide," Eid wrote in her dissenting opinion.
The court could see more TABOR cases this year. Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute, which coordinated the case against the mill-levy freeze, said Monday that he might sue the state over both Senate Bill 228, if it passes, and the auto registration fee increase that Ritter signed into law this month.