Dems cheer, GOP blasts Supreme Court ruling on property-tax freeze

Colorado Supreme Court justices, front row, from left: Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr., Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey, Justice Alex J. Martinez. Back row, from left: Justice Nathan B. Coats, Justice Michael L. Bender, Justice Nancy E. Rice, Justice Allison Eid

Colorado Supreme Court justices, front row, from left: Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr., Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey, Justice Alex J. Martinez. Back row, from left: Justice Nathan B. Coats, Justice Michael L. Bender, Justice Nancy E. Rice, Justice Allison Eid

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled 6-1 Monday that a controversial property-tax law doesn’t violate the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, the state constitutional amendment that limits taxes and spending. A 2007 state law froze mill-levy rates in school districts that had already voted to “de-Bruce,” or waive limits on property tax collection. Last year, the measure raised $117 million and is expected to garner $1.7 billion over 11 years.

Supporters of the law were quick to praise the ruling — and no doubt wiped their brows in relief, as the opposite ruling would have meant the state would have had to return the revenue when the budget is already $600 million short.

“We took up this fight two years ago because it was the right thing to do for the right reasons,” Gov. Bill Ritter, who backed the law and defended it in court, said in a statement after the ruling.

“Voters in 174 of 178 school districts had previously said ‘yes’ to adequately funding their schools, to keeping local dollars in their local schools. All we were doing was giving voice and respecting the will of the voters, and today’s court ruling re-affirms that voters knew what they were doing in every one of those elections.”

The process by which those voters held back local funding is known as a “de-Bruce” — a term coined for Douglas Bruce, the proponent of the 1992 Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) Act and a former lawmaker from El Paso County. De-Bruce refers to the act of undoing TABOR provisions.

Republicans attacked both the ruling and the court, which the state GOP has labeled the “most partisan” state court in the nation. “This is a rogue court issuing yet another reckless ruling,” state Sen. Ted Harvey, a Highlands Ranch Republican, said in a statement.

Opponents of the measure argued it constituted a tax increase — by freezing mill-levy rates rather than allowing them to fall as property values rose — so could only be approved by a vote of the people.

Here’s what the majority opinion had to say on that key issue (here is a link to the pdf containing the entire ruling, including Justice Alison Eid’s dissent):

The local school districts are the relevant taxing authority with respect to the revenue at issue in this case, and voters in those school districts validly waived the property tax revenue limit imposed by article X, section 20. Nothing in article X, section 20 requires an additional vote directing the use of revenue received as the result of a valid waiver, and SB 07-199 did not require a second vote in addition to the local school district waivers.

Gov. Ritter’s statement:

“The real winners today are Colorado’s children, families and schools. We took up this fight two years ago because it was the right thing to do for the right reasons: We were leading Colorado forward by removing an obstacle that hurt students, families and this state’s future.

“Today’s ruling affirms that, and it allows us to send more children to quality pre-schools, to offer full-day kindergarten to more families, and to provide college and career counselors in more middle and high schools.

“Today’s ruling allows us to continue moving toward our long-term goals of reducing dropout rates, closing achievement gaps and sending more of our students to college so they can compete and succeed in today’s 21st century global economy.”

Attorney General John Suthers’ statement follows. In 2007, Suthers commissioned a legal opinion that concluded the measure was subject to TABOR and the freeze had to go to a vote of the people.

“Given the Court’s history with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, I am not surprised by the decision, but I am nonetheless disappointed,” Suthers said. “The dissent is imminently better reasoned than the majority’s opinion. I remain convinced that the Colorado Constitution dictates that the voters decide when their taxes should be increased.”

“With all due respect to the Supreme Court, the district court got this right,” Suthers said. “The Supreme Court’s decision today represents a fundamental erosion of Colorado taxpayers’ rights.”

House Speaker Terrance Carroll, a Denver Democrat, lauded the court’s decision in a statement:

“I’m pleased with the court’s decision but not in the least surprised. We knew this would pass constitutional muster or we wouldn’t have done it. The legislation simply stabilizes funding for our kids’ schools so they can get the quality of education they deserve. I think the Governor, Rep. Jack Pommer, and all of the 2007 legislature deserve a pat on the back for their foresight in solving this difficult funding problem and still keeping our budget balanced.”

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, a Grand Junction Republican, blasted the decision in a statement:

“It’s fitting that the most partisan court in the land rubber stamped the governor’s property tax increase on exactly the same day Senate Democrats are poised to repeal Colorado’s landmark spending limits, and exactly two weeks after the Governor signed the largest increase in car taxes in a generation.

“With loyalist Democrats in charge of the Governor’s mansion, the state House, the state Senate, and the Supreme Court, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights is on life support and the principle of fiscal restraint is in full retreat.

“Unfortunately for citizens, this property tax hike comes at the worst possible time–the moment when many Coloradans are struggling just to keep their homes.”

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Ernest Luning

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