DENVER - Once upon a time, there was a land where the government had too much money, so once a year it sent everyone a
That place was Colorado in the late 1990s.
The checks - up to $570 for some people - came courtesy of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which voters adopted in 1992.
Eventually, the government had so much in its coffers that in addition to rebating money, the Legislature also
permanently cut taxes.
And then everything fell apart.
Colorado's budget has been in crisis since the last recession in 2001.
TABOR's role in the meltdown is a matter of strident debate. But experts on both sides agree on one crucial point:
TABOR's limits on how much the government can spend will not stand in the way of the recovery.
A kid who's not getting preschool because there's not money needs the money, not (TABOR) reform," said Carol Hedges of
the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a group that opposes TABOR.
Despite its almost 1,800 words, TABOR does two basic things: It limits government growth to the previous year's level
plus inflation and population growth, and it requires a vote of the citizens to raise taxes.
If the government collects money above the limit, it must issue rebates.
Those rebates totaled $4 billion between 1996 and 2005, the last rebate year. Plus, the Legislature cut taxes in 1999
and 2000, when it looked like rebates would continue forever.
We're talking almost $7 billion in revenue that has been returned to taxpayers through tax cuts (and rebates)," said
Barry Poulson, a University of Colorado economics professor and a leading TABOR proponent.
TABOR keeps the government from growing faster than the economy, he said.
But TABOR's critics say it does more than that - it actually shrinks the government relative to the economy.
My wife tells me this whole thing is counterintuitive," said Brad Young, a Republican former legislator who wrote a
short book called TABOR and Direct Democracy: An Essay on the End of the Republic.
Limiting government growth to population and inflation seems like a natural limit, but the economy grows faster than
TABOR's formula, Young said. Over time, TABOR will push down salaries for teachers and other government workers, he
So far, the critiques are mostly theoretical, because the Legislature, governor and voters have found ways to blunt the
amendment (see breakout box headlined Dodging TABOR").
TABOR hasn't had the impact because we've found all these ways to get around it," Young said.
That infuriates TABOR author Douglas Bruce, who said a scheme to free colleges from TABOR amounts to money
I think it's poetic justice that state revenue is now plunging, so their dishonesty might not prevail," Bruce said
last fall at a pro-TABOR meeting at the state Capitol.
Colleges at risk
At Fort Lewis College, the lack of funds has caused years-long delays in classroom construction.
But mostly, TABOR limits the flexibility of college leaders, said Steve Schwartz, vice president for finance and
Back in 1975, nobody had a laptop on their desk. ... TABOR doesn't recognize that. It basically assumes that
everything remains the same," Schwartz said. It forces government to say, if I add something new, I'm going to have to
cut something else out."
That means FLC has not been able to add a nursing program.
It would cost more than students would pay in tuition, so the college can't do it.
Had TABOR not been there, we could afford programs that were in the best interest of the state, not necessarily Fort
Lewis College," Schwartz said.
But the college might have more immediate problems. Between 2008 and 2010, the Legislature and governor will have made
nearly $2 billion in cuts. The last big place to cut is colleges.
This is where the second crucial part of TABOR comes into play - the ability to vote on tax increases.
It has proved to be a very popular idea from perhaps the least popular man in Colorado.