Columns » City Sage

A new kind of power struggle

City Sage



For connoisseurs of Colorado Springs Republican politics, the rift between Mayor John Suthers and the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity is both predictable and wonderful. Predictable, because AFP is reflexively anti-tax. Wonderful, because this little family quarrel is fun to witness and write about, and because it may lead to profound changes.

When Suthers brought his "Risky Tax Scheme" (apologies to Al Gore!) to City Council for fixing roads and streets, that august body agreed to submit it to the voters by an 8-1 vote. Only Helen Collins, Douglas Bruce's BFF and fellow real estate speculator, voted against it.

In recent years Mr. Bruce and his allies have managed to persuade city and county voters to reject most tax/fee increases. Remember the Stormwater Enterprise, the Stormwater Tax and the city property tax hike? The Dougster helped take 'em all down.

Except for El Paso County voters, Bruce's 1992 tax-limiting Taxpayer's Bill of Rights amendment to the state constitution would have failed. Local GOP officials privately despised Bruce and his amendment, but once it passed, they were stuck with it. Over time, it was elevated to mythic status. Every ambitious Republican had to swear fidelity to TABOR and pay ritual homage to those who created and approved it.

For nearly a quarter-century, Colorado Springs has languished under TABOR's boot. As the 2015 budget noted, Colorado Springs spends less per capita ($718) than any comparable city. Oklahoma City spends $1,117, Omaha spends $1,245, and Fort Collins shells out $1,521.

The city's property tax mill levy was a little over 11 mills in 1990. Now at 4.279, it's been reduced nine times since 1990. Despite siloed increases for transportation, open space and public safety, sales tax revenues haven't kept pace with needs. The arguments for additional revenue are so strong that a majority of voters seem poised to approve a new .62 percent sales tax. But debate raged on social media last weekend, when AFP posted this note on Facebook, inviting supporters to sign a letter opposing the measure:

"Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers believes the only way to fix our roads is to raise your taxes. Our budget expert's research shows there is more than enough money in the city budget to fix our roads, without a new tax hike. Roads need work, but more money from your pocket is not the answer."

The reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative from Suthers and others. Here are a couple of typical Facebook posts.

"The city (like the country) is going down the tubes because we would rather try to have it on the cheap than pitch in together and do it right," wrote UCCS grad Emily Kline. "We are slipping into the 2nd rank of civilized countries slowly but surely and it is because people have been bamboozled into thinking they can have something for nothing. Wake up, folks. I remember when this was a beautiful city that we could be proud of. We could do it again, but not for free."

"Oh puh-leez!" wrote Ellen Hamilton Fenter. "How do Coloradans put together the reality that living in this beautiful state has its price tag? It snows! It hails! There are extreme weather changes which means that asphalt will deteriorate. We have to 'pay' for the luxury of seeing those mountains every day and that means that, yes, we pay taxes. We have a forward-minded and brilliant mayor who wants to make our city run well for its citizens. Support him!"

When AFP's "expert" presented his anti-tax case to City Council and Mayor Suthers last week, they politely rejected both his factoids and the conclusions he drew from them.

What we have here is not politics as usual, but a religious dispute. Remember, Colorado Springs is in many ways the beating heart of American conservatism, the fons et origo of tax limitation, ground zero of the religious right and a reliable bastion against liberal tax-and-spend policies.

And the conservative leaders of this conservative city want a $250 million tax increase? For AFP, that's not a policy difference — that's apostasy! Colorado Springs can't reject 20 years of obedient submission to conservative doctrine any more than 16th-century Germans could accept Martin Luther's 95 theses.

It's AFP's worst nightmare. Suthers' impertinence must be quashed immediately before other once-reliable conservatives are infected with his pro-tax heresy ... it's unthinkable! It's as if Donald Trump were a serious candidate for the presidency.

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