As the Denver Post’s John Frank reports, Gov. John Hickenlooper is putting his money where his mouth his–or is it putting his mouth where he wants your money to be?–by proposing a small “tweak” to the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) that would allow the state to retain several hundred million dollars to fund needed projects:
On the first day of a new statewide tour, Gov. John Hickenlooper found an appropriate venue in this high mountain town for his push to revamp how the state spends money.
The Democrat stood on stage at the historic Tabor Opera House in Leadville and made a lengthy pitch for an overhaul to TABOR — the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Hickenlooper wants to exempt the hospital provider fee from state revenue collections under TABOR because it pushes Colorado over the constitutional cap, prompting taxpayer refunds next year even as the state struggles to adequately fund priority areas.
If the fee were removed from TABOR, Colorado’s revenues would fall under the cap and the state would have $200 million more to spend on road projects and classrooms, the governor said.
To be clear, this is not the “grand bargain” that would undo the fiscal chokehold of the combination of TABOR with other constitutional spending caps and mandates to let our elected officials do their jobs as prescribed by the same state (not to mention federal) constitution. The hospital provider fee was passed in 2009 under Gov. Bill Ritter in order to qualify for additional federal matching funds for Medicaid. The program has been very successful, but that success has come with the side effect of pushing the state beyond TABOR’s dreaded revenue caps.
Despite a backlog of funding priorities and money cover them, it’s necessary to hold a statewide vote to simply allow those funds to be retained and used by the state. For citizens who don’t understand TABOR, there’s a widespread assumption that our better economy means more revenue that the state can then use to pay for all the stuff we depend on every day–roads, schools, health care.
But in Colorado, that’s just not the way it works.
“I think giving people the real facts is half the battle,” he said after the first events. “To make sure they understand that … it’s going to crowd out, over the next few years, hundreds of millions of dollars from the things all these people want from their state government.”
We’ve heard some grumbling that Hickenlooper “squandering” an opportunity for a much more comprehensive solution for a smaller-scale proposal like this might make it harder down the road for such a “big fix” to pass muster. But we honestly think that the battle to unwind TABOR’s deviously complex restrictions on raising revenue in our state is a longer-term problem than Hickenlooper or anyone else can solve by 2016. The political backing doesn’t yet exist to make a wholesale repeal viable, and the projections of looming and persistent shortfalls in the future aren’t close enough yet to be real to voters. There is more work to be done educating the public, and more harm that needs to be seen with voters’ own eyes.
In the meantime, Gov. Hickenlooper is doing what he can. The arguments that he’s making for this small-scale TABOR “fix” apply to the big questions as well–and either Hick or his successor will benefit from his touring of the state to tell this story when TABOR’s judgment day finally arrives.