The 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights amendment to the state constitution was sold as a simple measure requiring voter assent for tax increases.
"Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution to require voter approval for certain state and local government tax revenue increases and debt; to restrict property, income, and other taxes; to limit the rate of increase in state and local government spending; to allow additional initiative and referendum elections; and to provide for the mailing of information to registered voters?"
But the fine print of the sweeping amendment, which of course was written by gonzo anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce, contained a lot more than the ballot title revealed. One of the more poisonous sections concerns revenue limitation.
Under TABOR, tax revenues may only increase by a certain percentage every year. That percentage is determined by a formula that takes into account population growth and inflation.
The real world is more complicated, especially for governments dependent on sales tax revenues. In times of growth, tax revenues soar, only to shrink drastically during recessions. But the TABOR base resets every year, forcing governments to beg voters for permission to retain revenue as the economy recovers — even if the revenue is substantially below its former peak.
That may please diehard Bruce-ites who believe that government is inherently profligate. But for those of us who support flood control, parks, filled potholes and fully staffed public safety departments, such revenue limitations are inherently brainless.
But never mind. The world is as it is, and just as the first swallow heralds spring, El Paso County's November TABOR ballot question symbolizes economic recovery. The county wants to retain $2 million in "excess" 2013 revenue and use the dough for maintenance and improvements to regional parks, trails, open space, nature centers and the El Paso County Fairgrounds. It's a sensible list, highlighted by long-deferred funding for a regional park on county-owned land near Falcon.
"That's an area of the county that desperately needs a developed park with playing fields," says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition. "If 1A passes, it'll be done."
If it does pass, could the county somehow weasel out of its commitment to spend the surplus revenue on parks?
"Absolutely not," she replies.
Will the measure negatively affect the chances of the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority initiative, which will appear on the ballot as well?
"I don't think so," she says. "I know that the PPRDA ran a poll, and it had no effect. They also asked respondents if they'd support 1A, and it was 66 percent yes, 21 percent no, and the rest undecided."
Will there be a massive pro-yes campaign? Davies laughs.
"We were handed this issue in the first week of September," she says. "Of necessity, this will be the smallest, cheapest campaign ever. Yard signs? Sure. Giant billboards? No."
No organized opposition has surfaced, other than that of Bruce. You can say this for the Dougster: He's consistent. In a screed that he might have written 25 years ago, Bruce denounces all things governmental.
"Don't buy emotional appeals it is for 'parks,'" he wrote. "The windfall would simply free up current park money to go for welfare handouts, pay, pensions and other big items..."
I'll spare you the rest, because it'll soon arrive in the mail. In a sorry example of TABOR-mandated government spending, the county is required to pay for printing and mailing to all registered voters a "Blue Book" giving pro and con arguments for most revenue measures. And since Doug's was the only "con" statement received, the entire 496-word statement will be reproduced in full. Talk about the nanny state!
But that's the law. Like flood, fire and freezing February nights, TABOR and its author are permanent features of the Colorado Springs landscape.
And to Bruce's frequently expressed dismay, so are the cautious, eminently conservative voters who decide most regional elections. They seem to be fond of parks, public safety, open space and transportation funding.
So, Doug, congratulations on your latest publication! Now go away.