(Centennial Fellow) Four years ago, Colorado voters decided to trust Democrats with complete control of state government - the governor's mansion and large majorities in the legislature.
As voters consider their choices for 2010, they might be surprised by how little governing Democrats have trusted voters in those four years.
Since 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter and the Democrat legislature have increased property taxes by more than $160 million a year, raised vehicle license "fees" by $250 million, instituted new hospital patient "fees" that will cost $600 million, and imposed some $180 million in new sales and use taxes.
All told, Ritter and the legislature have managed to increase the cost of taxes and fees by $1.19 billion and, miraculously, not once triggered Colorado's constitutional requirement that taxes can be raised only by a vote of the people.
In 2007, Democrats changed the school finance act to force most school districts to collect more property tax revenues, thereby reducing what the state spends on K-12 education. Previously, even many Democrats acknowledged that such a change must be presented to the voters.
This time, however, Democrats commandeered the political will to pass such a law and constructed a legal argument which, although rejected by a lower court, ultimately prevailed in the Colorado Supreme Court. As a result, Coloradans will pay an extra $160 million for property taxes this year alone - and more than $1 billion over six years.
Thus emboldened, the 2009 legislature smashed another of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights' (TABOR) prohibitions by eliminating the general fund spending limit without a public vote. Although Colorado Revised Statutes specifically referred to this provision as a "limitation" on the general fund, Democrats and their attorneys argued that it was instead an "allocation strategy" and, therefore, not subject to TABOR's prohibition against weakening spending limits without a public vote.
In its ruling on the 2007 property tax hike, the supreme court also signaled lawmakers that other taxes could be raised, under the guise of eliminating tax exemptions, so long as they didn't exceed TABOR revenue limit.To Democrats, suddenly everything that wasn't already taxed was merely "exempted" and a target to be taxed. So in the middle of a recession, they raised taxes on Colorado families and businesses by $180 million over two years.
However, the greatest deception is the onslaught of taxes masquerading as fees. Generally, taxes - which, according to the constitution, can't be raised without voter approval - are collected broadly and can be spent for any purpose. Fees, however, were generally understood to cover the cost of a regulatory function or of administration (e.g., licensing or registration) for which the fee is assessed.
Democrats made no pretense that the largest of their fee increases merely cover administrative expenses. Ritter suggested that the primary criterion necessary for a tax to be considered a fee is a "direct relationship" between the payer of the fee and a government activity funded by the fee.
Under this construction, it seems obvious that a new "fee" on gasoline could be imposed without a public vote so long as revenues are dedicated exclusively to highway construction or repair.
The most egregious fee - a $600 million tax on hospital services - is assessed on "outpatient and inpatient services" and ultimately paid by patients or their insurers, who receive no direct benefit in return. Ironically, Democrats dubbed this legislation, the "Health Care Affordability Act."
Together these two fees when fully implemented are projected to raise a combined $850 million a year. With fees of this magnitude, voters may never again be asked to approve a genuine tax.
Democrat candidate for governor John Hickenlooper recently said, "I think if you put issues before the public, they'll decide if it's a worthwhile investment."
That's not the way Democrats have governed for the past four years. So why should Colorado voters trust Democrats when Democrats clearly don't trust voters?
(Denver Post, May 2) “Son, you have become a man. Mom and I are so proud of your maturity. In turning 21 today and taking a bride tomorrow, you reach the age of emancipation. This is literally your time of being set free, entering upon self-determined adulthood. What a milestone.
“Because we care for you and your wife and children, we’ll stay involved as parents in a few small ways. We will provide a house for you, and cars as needed. We will supply you energy for all those. Of course we’ll always cover the medical bills for you and the kids. Costs of school and college will be on us as well. Plus an income floor. Pay a share of these things if you can, but don’t strain yourself. It’s our tribute to your independence.”
Independence, Dad? Who are you kidding? That’s a gilded cage. Any mother and father who coddled their grown children this way (some do, of course, to their sorrow) would be committing parental malpractice. Any son or daughter thus “cared for” should feel insulted, indentured, and infantilized.
But consider: The dependence we find so repugnant if indulged within the family is all around us politically, under paternalistic big government. Housing, heating, healing, food, fuel, lighting, leisure, teaching, transportation, and pocket money are ALL now provided, subsidized, or facilitated for many of us by the omnipotent State. And the trend line keeps rising, no matter which party is charge. We’re hooked.
To feed our habit, Americans will pay more in taxes this year than everything we spend for food, clothing, and shelter. And to meet the remaining cost of paternalism, we’ll borrow yet more from our grandkids. This year’s actual Tax Freedom Day, deficit included, isn’t until May 17. Obama’s spending orgy in 2009 and 2010 has pushed it later than at any time since World War II. Then we were fighting for survival. Now we’re just gorging for appetite.
Don’t worry, though. Those health care heroes, the Democrats, have the cure for our fiscal obesity: more calories. In honor of April 15, state Sen. Chris Romer warned that Colorado can’t hope to have a thriving economy “until we learn to raise our taxes.” That same week, US Sen. Michael Bennet claimed the Tea Party movement is “trafficking in a kind of nihilistic vision that says we don't have a responsibility to the next generation.” So now dependency is a duty?
Most Coloradans, whether their party is R or D or Tea, would snort in disgust if you gave them a Declaration of Dependence to sign. Statehood was only granted us, after all, on condition of upholding the Declaration of Independence. We pay it lipservice, picturing ourselves as “a free people” who honorably direct their own “lives and fortunes,” and resist despotism “with manly firmness.” Yet sadly, we’re more like a fatty seeing muscle in the mirror. The firm self-reliance of our forefathers has gone to flab.
The collectivist freebies we all depend on are scarcely imagined in the Colorado Constitution – and unauthorized in the United States Constitution. Immense unfunded liabilities for entitlements and pensions, state and federal alike, loom like Katrina headed for landfall. Yet the political establishment shrugs off the impending emergency. Democrats and Republicans, courts and media, labor and business have combined to weaken this state’s best protection, TABOR.
Citizens unwilling to declare their dependence have put on the ballot a TABOR rescue package. Amendment 60 restores our vote on property taxes. Amendment 61 restores our vote on debt. Proposition 101 cuts the tax on cars, phones, and income. Womb-to-tomb paternalism will suffocate our liberty and prosperity if we don’t bestir ourselves. Passing those three measures would be a start.
(Centennial Fellow) After imposing more than $1 billion a year in tax and fee increases - without once seeking voter approval - liberal Democrats in the Colorado legislature now want voters to permit them to raise taxes without limitation and without ever asking voters again.
Can you say, "Oblivious to irony"?
Colorado's constitutional stipulates that taxes cannot be increased without asking the voters. But voters have an annoying habit of saying "no" to big-spending politicians who think their priorities are more important than those of the voters, so in just the past four years Democrats have:
· Increased vehicle licensing taxes by $40-$50 per vehicle per year, plus substantial penalties, and called them "fees" just so they didn't need to ask for voters' permission.
· Increased assorted taxes on Colorado families and businesses by $50 million last year and another $130 million this year, again without ever seeking voters' permission.
· Increased your property taxes by some $150 million this year alone, again without voter approval, calling that scheme the "Colorado Children's Amendment."
Apparently, liberals are betting that voters have a very short memory because, as you may recall, the 2007 Children's Amendment was touted as a "commitment to pre-school programs, full-day kindergarten and local school districts" and as a plan to prevent the State Education Fund from becoming insolvent, according to a press release from Gov. Bill Ritter.
Now, we're told, schools are on the brink of financial catastrophe and, oh by the way, the State Education Fund is broke anyway.
House Concurrent Resolution 1002 asks voters to exempt K-12 education and higher education - which account for 60 percent of state general fund spending - from all constitutional spending limits and from the requirement that tax increases must be approved by the voters.
Because money is fungible, it would eviscerate the last meaningful taxpayer protection in the state constitution.
To be sure, local school districts have had a couple tough budget years. But so has the State of Colorado and so have taxpaying families and businesses.
Despite numerous attempts to shield education from economic reality, the legislature's bag of tricks finally ran out this year along with taxpayers' money. Since voters adopted Amendment 23 ten years ago, in yet another plan to give schools all the money they need, schools have been exempted from the cuts that confronted the rest of the state budget.
Ten years ago, the state spent an average of $5,168 per pupil. In the recently-approved 2010-11 budget, the average is $7,279 - a cumulative increase of 40 percent.
Last year, even after the legislature rescinded $148 per student, schools still received an average increase of more than $200 per student over the previous year.
Despite two recessions in the last decade, per pupil spending has increased each and every year. That doesn't mean that schools haven't experienced increasing costs for health care, for energy and for funding retirement pensions or that the legislature hasn't cut back in other areas. However, these are conditions that businesses and families must manage as well - and they must do so without the power to tax.
Because it seeks to amend the state constitution, HCR 1002 needs a two-thirds majority in both the Colorado House and Senate. It will almost certainly fall short of that goal. However, proponents could put their proposal on the ballot via petition.
Selling it to voters will be an uphill climb, as proponents of Amendment 59 learned in 2008. That proposal, which sought to repeal parts of TABOR and Amendment 23, was far more even-handed, backed by more than $2 million and opposed by less than $50,000. Nonetheless, voters rejected it 54 to 45 percent.
The prospect that voters, whose trust of government is near an alltime low, would reward the tax hikers with even more power to tax is a longshot.
That liberal Democrats are so tone deaf that they are forging ahead anyway demonstrates their abject isolation from the financial hardships facing ordinary Coloradans.
Several hundred Coloradans gathered yesterday at the state capitol to remind our government officials that we pay the bills. Sponsored by a coalition of independent but like-minded organizations, including the Independence Institute, the rally vigorously reasserted our role 'as citizen-leaders.
Important points were addressed. Paramount were these messages to our state and federal legislators: Stop irresponsible spending and uphold the values of the citizens you represent. We don't want Obamacare. We don't want nannyism. We don't want economy-crippling taxes and regulation.
Judges too were called upon to be held accountable. Because our state supreme court too often condones the governor's and legislature's uncontrolled spending, shouts of "Clear the Bench" rang out.
Speakers and banners proclaimed that we just want the government to stick to its job and let us manage our lives ourselves. Many protesters waved "Don't Tread on Me" flags and "Taxed Enough Already" posters. Others, including me, sported "I Love TABOR" T-shirts. Defending TABOR, our solitary defense against rampant, ever-mounting taxation, was a primary theme.
Another fiscal-restraint rally is scheduled for April 15th, income tax day. Let's keep reminding them that they work for us. And, if they don't listen, we'll vote them out of office in November.
(Denver Post, Feb. 21) Mobilize the militia. Fire up the Humvee. Get down the musket off the mantelpiece. Boulder is preparing to invade Colorado.
Yes, a lawyer from up in the progressive paradise says that your right to vote on taxes violates his constitutional entitlement to ever-increasing teacher salaries and NEA indoctrination of our kids. The invasion is no joke, because Herbert Fenster is a legal heavyweight and his intended enforcer is a robed priesthood answerable to no one. TABOR could be in trouble.
Fenster will ask the courts to strike down the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in our state constitution, whereby citizens have the last word on taxes and debt, under his theory that taxation by elected legislators, not you and me, is essential to “a republican form of government” as guaranteed to each state by the U.S. Constitution.
Some theory. Major premise: “The power to tax is the power to destroy,” as John Marshall warned Americans two centuries ago. Minor premise: Colorado’s people, explicitly sovereign under our 1876 constitution, have limited the taxing power with a 1992 amendment. Conclusion, according to Fenster: The General Assembly must be given unlimited power to destroy.
Who is to ax TABOR? Not the ordinary working Coloradans who sweat the jobs that bring the paychecks that yield the taxes that reduce the take-home that feeds the family. That would call for a ballot issue and a campaign, you see. It would require persuading too many selfish folks who don’t realize that others know what’s best for them. Fenster of Boulder would rather just persuade a few enlightened judges.
We could try to antidote this poison cocktail of elitism and illogic with facts. We could bring data to show that tax limitation over the past two decades has helped Colorado’s economy to thrive competitively, while buffering public budgets from the nightmare imbalance of states like California. We could cite studies tracing the dysfunction of public education to structural, not fiscal, causes. But that’s not the real issue.
The issue is whether we’re fit to be free – we the self-assertive and self-reliant Westerners, we the people. Herb Fenster and his liberal posse, decent Americans as best I know, don’t think so. They want the unelected judiciary to take our votes away from us because we’re uncaring toward children. What’s scary is that they may succeed, unless we raise the kind of hell that free men raise when liberty is threatened.
I don’t just mean filing legal briefs. A defense in court will be needed, and TABOR advocates will mount one. Nor do I just mean winning the debate. Montana's Robert Natelson and many other law professors could school Fenster in the constitutional acceptability of “direct citizen lawmaking” in both the Founders’ intent and case law.
But along with all that, we need the tea-party spirit. Absent an aroused and determined citizenry, neither law nor logic nor the majesty of the Supreme Court nor even the powers of Congress are now enough to safeguard limited government, so far gone is the old American republic with its “Don’t tread on me” ethos.
In the Reynolds case of 1964, the US Supreme Court imperially banned state senates from being districted as the U.S. Senate is. Constitutionally unwarranted and outrageous, but we swallowed it. Will the Fenster case tempt the Supremes to a similar tyrannical ban on tax limits? It could – and even if it does not, this should be a wakeup call for patriots.
Those seeking to simply gavel TABOR down will try something else if this fails. They are emboldened and shameless. They evidently believe Dostoevsky was right when he predicted mankind will trade “the ill-fated gift of freedom” for bread and lies. They assume that Tocqueville’s prophecy of “soft despotism” gradually making Americans a nation of sheep has come true. Has it?
('76 Editor) I asked former Treasurer Mark Hillman what sort of genuine PERA stabilization bill he would file if the two of us were still state senators, in light of his concern expressed in the previous post that the current bipartisan Senate Bill 1 doesn't get at the root of the problem. He recommended the following three steps:
* Raise the retirement age to 67 for anyone who hasn't been in a PERA-covered job for more than 5 years.
* Give everyone the option to put their money into a DC plan.
* Put into statute that, from this point forward, if PERA's funds fail to meet the 30-year amortization requirement, that constitutes an "actuarial emergency" and it's up to the PERA board to produce permanent benefit reductions that restore the 30-year amortization schedule.
By the way, Hillman has just published an excellent overview of how Bill Ritter and Colorado Democrats have shredded both the budget and the constitution since 2006. The paper is called "A Billion Reasons Why Colorado Taxpayers Need Protection." He wrote it for the Rocky Mountain Foundation, the new group headed by our friend Tom Tancredo.