(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?