Will car tax undo Dems?

Or will they undo it? Enroute to a defeat for governor of Virginia, the Democrat blamed his loss on “the slogan from hell: ‘No Car Tax.’” That was Don Beyer when Jim Gilmore beat him in 1997.

Unseated as governor of Arkansas, the Democrat realized he had “unwisely raised the state motor vehicle tax,” writes biographer Nigel Hamilton. A visitor “found him on the floor, bawling like a baby,” and railing at Jimmy Carter. That was Bill Clinton after Frank White humiliated him in 1980.

If Coloradans oust Bill Ritter in 2010, our gentlemanly governor will control his emotions better than Slick Willie. But his undoing could be identical to that of Clinton and Beyer – misjudging how mad Americans can get when government messes with their cars, trucks, campers, and trailers.

Some genius, maybe the same consultant that’s charging CU almost a million dollars for logo design, coined the acronym FASTER for Ritter’s bill that boosted vehicle registration fees and late penalties, effective July 1. The bill is supposed to raise $250 million a year for roads. But the only thing that’s going faster so far is Republican hopes.

The surprise has people steamed. In a puny concession, Ritter offered to roll back the late charges on non-motorized vehicles, such as boat trailers. Thanks a lot. In a defensive crouch, county clerks met citizen anger with canned complaint postcards and extra guards. The brouhaha is far from over.

The average additional hit of $32 per vehicle, or even the maximum penalty of $100, may sound trivial at a time when politicians talk in trillions. But like a candidate’s $400 haircut, a Pentagon platinum toilet seat, or that British parliamentarian’s moat-cleaning allowance, it’s the kind of crazy-making detail that infuriates recession-weary taxpayers.

Insult follows injury when you hear that the last two letters in FASTER – Rep. Joe Rice’s legislative masterpiece, which has GOP strategists taking aim at him – stand for “economic recovery.” Can Dems really believe picking our pockets is the right remedy in hard times?

Freda Poundstone, Republican former mayor of Greenwood Village, knows it isn’t. The grande dame of citizen petitions in Colorado, author of a 1974 constitutional amendment that bears her name and halted Denver’s annexation march, hopes to get on the 2010 ballot with a petition to halt the revenue grab. Her Initiative No. 10, currently gathering signatures, would cut taxes on vehicles, income, and phones – VIP for short.

Annual car registrations would be capped at $10, vehicle ownership and sales taxes would phase down, state income tax would drop from 4.63% to 4.5% with further cuts in fat economic times, and telecom taxes of all sorts would end. Colorado Tax Reform is the sponsoring group. I was an early signer.

Initiative No. 10 gains urgency from a little-noticed 2008 ruling of the state Supreme Court, Barber vs. Ritter, which effectively wiped out the inconvenient distinction between what’s a tax, subject to TABOR limits and voting, and what’s a fee at the legislature’s discretion. Unless we the people can win the next round of ballot battles and rebuild fiscal guardrails, Colorado could follow California over the cliff.

This election will be a doozy. Ritter wants rid of TABOR, even though Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore in their new book “Rich States, Poor States,” crunch numbers to prove it’s been “a boon to the economy of the state,” tenth strongest nationally since 1997. But disgusted motorists may want rid of Ritter and his party. Then there’s Poundstone with her petition, and that Clear the Bench campaign seeking to fire four justices.

The political rehab for automobile casualties, where Beyer and Clinton once checked in, could be admitting a Colorado inmate 15 months from now.

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