Did Someone Say Tax Hike? No, Of Course Not

Getting politicians to talk about tax increases is like trying to turn cougars into house cats.

It just ain’t natural.

So as the costs for improvements in transportation, health care distribution and competitive universities grow by the billions, Colorado’s leaders still act coy about the kind of revenue-raising measure they might have to take to the voters in November 2008.Gov. Bill Ritter keeps talking about limiting a money vote to a single ballot initiative.

But Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, insists that those listening to the governor are missing the subordinate clause in his speech.

“The singular word that gets lost is `if,'” Dreyer said.

As in, if there needs to be a revenue-raising ballot measure in 2008 …

Well, here’s another if:

If the governor intends to keep his promises to the people, it’s nearly impossible to see how he can avoid some kind of money measure next year.
Yet Dreyer says “it’s premature to say it’s premature” to talk about this a month before the start of the legislative session.

“The conversation is in process,” Dreyer assured. But it has to involve “legislative leadership and the business community.” It has to include “the temperature of the national economy and the housing market.”

That makes sense. What strains the brain is when Dreyer claims “it’s no slam dunk that there is a recommendation from the governor to go on the ballot (in 2008).”

The governor has had blue ribbon commissions working simultaneously on health care reform, higher education and transportation improvements. The recommended transportation program costs $1.5 billion by itself, paid for, in part, by recommended sales tax and fuel tax increases that must be approved by voters.

In his first state-of-the-state speech, Ritter told Coloradans they would have near universal access to health care by 2010. That’s two years hither. While the blue ribbon commission on health care reform won’t be offering options until the end of January, it is disingenuous to suggest that those options will come with a price tag that can be met in the near term merely by increasing efficiency.

Even the most cost-efficient and money-saving health care reform plan – a single-payer system – involves a tax increase to replace private health insurance premiums.

Looming in the wings meanwhile is a major fiscal policy reform pushed by Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Romanoff expects a discussion in the upcoming session of his plan to simultaneously fix structural problems with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which cause the government to starve itself in bad economic times, and Amendment 23, which constitutionally requires automatic increases in funding for public education from kindergarten through high school.

Romanoff proposes to fix these competing mandates, along with a couple of other fiscal tweaks, in a two-pronged ballot measure. The first would ask voters to suspend the state’s “single subject” rule on ballot initiatives one time. The second ballot measure would bring permanent reform of TABOR and Amendment 23, as well as the other tweaks, to the voters in a single ballot item.

If you want to know how serious the structural problems are, consider that Republican state Rep. and would-be state Sen. Al White has suggested a constitutional convention to deal with the same concerns.

A constitutional convention could open every part of the Colorado Constitution to renegade proposals, Romanoff worries. A convention would also take three votes of the citizens rather than two to make the desired fiscal fix, Romanoff said – one vote to call the convention, one vote to approve a way to pick delegates and one vote to approve the actions taken to change the constitution.

But here’s the kicker: While Romanoff’s and White’s proposals will give the state badly needed flexibility in reallocating existing resources, neither will free up enough money to fund all of the transportation recommendations and health care and higher education needs.

That brings you back to new sources of revenue and ridiculously tight lips.

On the one hand, Romanoff says: “We don’t start with the presumption that there must be a (revenue-raising) ballot issue in 2008 at all costs.”

Then, he turns around and says that the existing revenue stream is not enough to fund the transportation recommendations, health care reform and higher education simultaneously.

“We’re out of gimmicks,” the Speaker admitted.

But unfortunately, not out of double talk.

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Jim Spencer

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