As Colorado wrestles with an already lean state budget growing leaner by the day — one that has forced Gov. Bill Ritter to propose repeated controversial cuts to state services this year — a trio of budget busting anti-tax initiatives is speeding its way to the 2010 ballot. The dramatic nature of the initiatives, which plainly seek to shrink state government, and their timing, coming as they do amid an historic budget crisis, has sparked high media interest and political buzz.
Ritter last week called the initiatives “dangerous.”
As late as a week ago Friday, however, Scott McInnis, the Republican frontrunner in the race to unseat Ritter, had yet to take a position on the initiatives. Campaign spokesman Josh Green told the Colorado Independent that the former Congressman had not fully reviewed the initiatives and so had yet to decide whether he would support or oppose them.
“[McInnis] really hasn’t looked at those initiatives closely yet, so we can’t comment at this time,” he said.
Neither did McInnis address them in a lengthy interview conducted by 9News over the weekend, in which he discussed the state budget crisis and the state budget engineering put in place nearly two decades ago by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which passed as a ballot initiative in 1991.
In the weeks since state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry dropped out of the GOP gubernatorial primary, McInnis has been struggling with some embarrassment to shore up support among the anti-tax Tea Party members of the right. The three ballot initiatives are popular among the Tea Party voters, who will certainly be looking for a response from McInnis in the coming days.
On Friday, the Secretary of State’s office approved hundreds of thousands of signatures in favor of two of the initiatives. The initiatives will likely appear on the ballot as proposed Constitutional Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101.
The anti-tax proposals
The first initiative is sponsored by Louis Schroeder of Greenwood Village and seeks to radically reduce Colorado property taxes.
Kersey resident Jeff Gross’s initiative, which he sponsored with famous anti-tax figure Freda Poundstone, would slash annual revenue by roughly $50 million in income taxes alone, based on figures from 2005, dropping the state income-tax rate rate from 4.6 percent to 3.5 percent over 10 years. It also proposes to cut sales, service and rental taxes and fees on motor vehicles and communication products and services — on car purchases and leases and on mobile phone and Internet and pager accounts, for example. In a mandatory review of the initiative performed by legislative council in March, state lawyers told Gross that the tax amounts he was suggesting would not even pay for the cost of collecting them. He was unmoved. Gross has refused to speak to the press about the initiative.
Poundstone, a former lobbyist and author of the 1970s Poundstone Amendment, told the Colorado Independent that she had little to do with drafting the initiative. She jokingly referred to Gross as simply a “gentleman caller” whose idea she supported.
The last initiative would limit the kind of borrowing the state can undertake.
Analysts have suggested that perhaps Doug Bruce the author of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is behind the initiatives. Face the State reported this summer that the six proponents were working together to round up signatures.
The sponsors of the three initiatives said they are working together to qualify the initiatives for next year’s election, but would not provide further information as to the connection between them. Michelle Northrup, a Black Hawk resident and proponent of Initiative 21, referred all questions to the initiative Web sites. “We really want people directed to the Web sites, and we don’t anything we say to be misinterpreted,” she said.
It’s very likely former state Rep. Doug Bruce, a Colorado Springs Republican who originally authored TABOR, is at the center of the effort. All three initiative Web sites have a similar style and low-budget appearance as Bruce’s own site, and all are hosted on the same computer server registered to a Colorado Springs IT consulting company.
Fiscal analysts say it’s difficult to overstate the effects the initiatives would have on Colorado public services.
Carol Hedges, senior analyst at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, told the Colorado Independent that she was still preparing her analysis of the initiatives and that she looks forward to publishing it in the next few weeks.
Even so, she talked for 25 minutes off the top of her head on all three proposals.
“Devastating,” she called them.
The Gross-Poundstone initiative alone, she said “would see close to $1.3 billion in revenue reductions. That translates directly to $1.3 billion in cuts. That’s the point that matters. Colorado already ranks 48th in state taxation. It ranks 46th in state and local taxation.” Coloradans don’t pay a lot of taxes as it is, she said, so this initiative by itself would force us to rethink the role of government in the state.
The Schroeder initiative is “the one meant to address the so-called de-Brucing,” she said, referring to The School Finance Act passed by the state legislature in 2007. The Act froze property tax rates instead of rolling them back, effectively nullifying rules put in place by TABOR.
“That initiative targets property taxes… But property taxes only go to essential services,” said Hedges.
“The last initiative– that one would effectively prevent the state from borrowing. But the fact is Colorado uses very little debt services. We take very little. It goes to capital construction, campus buildings… The initiative would have immediate effects.”
Hedges said the measures are extreme, whatever supporters may say, but she acknowledges there is growing fertile ground for the impulses that are driving them. Indeed the media brims with scenes testifying to the often dark anti-government posture on the right that has been stoked by sweeping federal actions that include the TARP bank bailouts, economic Recovery Act stimulus spending and proposed health care reform. Securing the requisite signatures to place these initiatives on the ballot has reportedly been like shooting fish in a barrel at Colorado anti-tax Tea Parties.
The Secretary of State’s Office reports that proponents have turned in roughly twice the 76,000 signatures required for each initiative.
Still, Hedges believes voters understand the ramifications.
“There have been similarly extreme anti-tax measures in the past and they have failed. Ultimately, Colorado voters see how important it is to have proper education and transportation and basic services.”
In a recent blog at the Huffington Post, Hedges underlined the benefits of education to state business and employment. Quoting Tom Clark of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, she referred to the state’s low education funding as the “soft underbelly in the Colorado economy.”
“The problem with these initiatives is that people are frustrated with government spending. The state, however, is not allowed to deficit spend. There’s a difference. So I think the question is: Will voters sort out federal from state approaches to spending? That’s fairly sophisticated. We’ll see.”