Anti-tax fanatic and now-convicted tax-evader Douglas Bruce sold us a bill of goods in 1992 when voters approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, on the promise the we, the people, had the power to decide if and when to raise our state taxes. It’s the biggest lie in Colorado politics. And also the most fiscally damaging.
In fact, other provisions in the complex amendment block voter-approved increases from actually upping the state’s revenue. The real heart of TABOR isn’t its promise of popular votes on tax increases. It’s the cap – the part of TABOR that prohibits overall state spending from exceeding a rigid formula tied to inflation and the previous census. Revenue raised above the TABOR cap has to be given up.
More and more Coloradans are realizing that TABOR’s promise of fiscal populism is hollow, at best. We voted in 2012 to legalize marijuana and tax it for school construction. TABOR fundamentalists insisted that the Amendment 64 vote didn’t actually legalize a pot tax — even though the amendment put language in the state Constitution providing that “the General Assembly shall levy an excise tax upon marijuana” – because the amendment didn’t contain the usual, TABOR-mandated all-caps “SHALL TAXES BY INCREASED BY [fill in scary, large number here]?” language. The legislature dodged this arcane question of TABOR-ology by asking the voters in 2013 not just to re-approve the Amendment 64 tax, but also an additional retail tax. Voters said yes to both.
Now, having voted twice to tax marijuana, Coloradans have learned that TABOR still doesn’t let the state keep the marijuana tax revenue. This is due to yet another little-known TABOR provision, which requires the state to make a reverse-Price-Is-Right guesstimate of overall state revenue when a tax question is placed on the ballot. If the state’s estimate is even one dollar below the actual total, the state must return all revenue from the first year of the tax. Coloradans face a likely third vote to allow the state to keep the marijuana tax revenue we thought we already approved twice using our so-called TABOR rights. In the meantime, schools still won’t get the pot tax revenue the people approved for them. That means some kids are packed in schools that are overcrowded, underheated or falling apart.
Far from empowering voters, TABOR has created a situation where no one – not even Coloradans who have devoted years to the study of TABOR-ology – can predict exactly whether a vote to raise taxes will actually raise anyone’s taxes.
It’s a bigger fraud than any Douglas Bruce tax return.
Photo Credit: Jenny Konrad, Creative Commons, Flickr.