On the ballot: Romanoff’s SAFE reroutes TABOR money to education

Democrat speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff at a Denver town hall forum. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Democrat speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff at a Denver town hall forum. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

The battle to undo one of Colorado’s most famous and controversial citizen-led constitutional amendments — 1992’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights — is underway and it’s gaining bipartisan support.

Known as the “Savings Account for Education,” or SAFE, the ballot initiative would do away with tax refunds created under TABOR and instead reroute the money toward public education.

Colorado already keeps the surplus created under TABOR that would go to SAFE because of Referendum C, which narrowly passed in 2004 and which gives the state a five-year timeout from TABOR.

Helping to untangle what many lawmakers call a constitutional knot, SAFE would also repeal Amendment 23 passed in 2000, which boosts state spending on K-12 education by 1 percent every year, and would keep intact TABOR’s requirement that all new taxes pass a vote of the people.

“What we’re proposing to do is save money when times are good so we don’t have to cut schools and other vital services when times are bad,” said Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic speaker of the House who is organizing the measure. If a similar system had been in place during the late 1990s, he added, the climb back from the economic recession in 2002 wouldn’t have been as painful.

By using the TABOR surplus to create an education fund and by repealing the state’s requirements of Amendment 23, the state will gain flexibility in how it spends in other areas of the budget and it will resolve a restrictive constitutional knot, Romanoff said.

“Having that savings account is important because education is the single best investment we can make in our economy,” he said. “It’s the best way to bring and keep good jobs in Colorado.”

Not everyone is sold on the plan, including, not surprisingly, Douglas Bruce, the author of TABOR.

Bruce, an anti-tax advocate and state representative from Colorado Springs who recently lost a primary bid for election, called Romanoff’s plan nothing more than a hidden tax increase on Colorado families and a way for “tax and spend liberals to grow big government.”

Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-El Paso.
Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-El Paso.
“This proposal richly deserves its title to be the ‘Romanoff Rip-off,’” Bruce said. “The state is not in a fiscal crunch right now. In fact, the state is in an orgy of spending. The state’s revenue is up by 1.2 billion dollars. The average family of four is spending more than $14,000 (on state government) each year. That is a crunch? That is fiscal austerity? That is preposterous.”

When Romanoff initially proposed the plan, he received a lukewarm response; a legislative bill to place the initiative on the ballot was killed in a House committee before coming up for a full vote. The speaker and his supporters then opted to petition onto the ballot — and within seven weeks collected 176,000 signatures, gaining a spot on the November ballot.

Bruce attempted to challenge the proposal’s single-subject requirement — all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court — and lost.

Since then, SAFE has picked up bipartisan support, including from Republican Attorney General John Suthers and Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Larimer County, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee.

Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Larimer County, waits for his turn to speak at a town hall forum in April. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Larimer County, waits for his turn to speak at a town hall forum in April. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
“Unless we have a plan to provide the services that Coloradans want and depend upon, we will not be able to be the kind of state that can provide quality K-12 and higher education, deal with our transportation needs, and promote new energy production, economic development and have the infrastructure to attract good quality jobs to our state,” Johnson said. “We will return to being unable to keep up with the demands of a growing state and growing economy just like we were before Ref. C.”

Bruce responded by calling Johnson a “Republican In Name Only.”

“Bipartisan doesn’t mean anything,” Bruce said. “All that means is you have tax-and-spend folks on both sides of the aisle willing to support it. This is just a ploy to have unlimited spending to fatten up the state budget. They can lower spending on education, divert the money to prisons, roads, salaries, their pet projects and then they can replace the money with people’s tax refunds (from TABOR) because we will never get those tax refunds again.”

But Romanoff, who personally gathered more than 1,000 signatures for the SAFE initiative, is more optimistic.

“We’re building a broad, bipartisan coalition and we’re traveling the state and by the time we’re done we will have traveled to every corner of the state,” he said. “I think it will pass.”