TABOR at 25, Part II: A Limit on Colorado’s Way of Life

January 29, 2018
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by Carol Hedges, Executive Director

Coloradans are fond of touting our way of life as unique, and with good reason. We are home to a beautiful landscape, a rich heritage, a growing economy, and a distinctive Western spirit.

Whether you’re a fifth-generation Coloradan or a new resident, a rancher on the Eastern Plains or a resort worker living the dream in a mountain town, a retiree on the Western Slope or a recent graduate working at a startup, you are here because you – and because the generations before you – wanted a better life.

That’s embedded in our DNA. It’s core to who we are and what we are as a state.

For centuries, people have made Colorado their home to pursue a way of life they can call their own. For some, that’s rooted in agriculture, farming, or ranching. For others, it’s the draw of the mountains and a spirit of adventure. For many, it’s a sense of both solitude and community in frontier towns. And for others, it’s the opportunity and entrepreneurship found in Front Range cities and beyond.

The Colorado way of life encompasses so much and so many distinct variations. It’s often reduced to having a ski pass and a Subaru, but being a Coloradan is so much more than that. When you travel around this vast state and meet people in all its wonderful communities, you realize that being a Coloradan is about loving where you live and living how you want.

But one of our unique characteristics as a state is making that more and more difficult. And that culprit is TABOR, which increasingly stands in the way of Coloradans being able to live how they want and earn a good life.

In our first post about the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), we noted that understanding the last two and half decades of fiscal policy in Colorado is not nearly as critical as looking ahead to figure out what kind of fiscal policy we want and need for the next 25 years.

And what’s increasingly clear is that our current fiscal constraints are woefully ill-equipped to support the many ways of life that we want to see thrive across Colorado communities.

Despite our recent economic growth, we are seeing more and more fissures emerge in our schools, our health care, our roads and infrastructure, and all the other ways that we’re falling short on the public investments needed to help our communities thrive well into the future.

And those fissures are made more difficult because TABOR and other constraints hinder our ability to invest in and support the different ways of life we are home to. It hamstrings policymakers. It subscribes local communities to government by formula. And it strips away our collective ability to support what makes Colorado communities great.

We’re at serious risk of letting our fiscal policy deepen an already growing economic divide between urban and rural communities.

As a state, we’re seeing near record lows in unemployment. But at the same time, wages have stagnated, cost of living – especially housing – is skyrocketing, and the poverty rate in some rural counties is more than four times what it is in affluent suburban counties.

TABOR and other constraints shackle how and how much can be invested in our state, while our state continues to change and evolve in ways that were not envisioned 25 years ago.

The policy demands of a county where there are 89 houses per square mile are much different than in a county where there are 4 houses per square mile – which is what the difference between urban and rural counties looks like from a density standpoint.

The needs of a community where 30% of the population is over 65 years old – as is the case in Hinsdale County – are going to be different than where it’s only 10% – as is the case in Denver.

Our state’s aging population can hamper wage growth, as older, higher-paid employees leave the workforce and are succeeded by younger, lower-wage workers. Colorado’s homestead property tax exemption alone, a property tax break to seniors, is growing 8.5% from last fiscal year to the next. Meanwhile, health care and human services costs continue to rise and claim more of the state’s General Fund revenue.

All the talk of attracting the new Amazon headquarters or potentially putting in a bid for the 2026 Olympics is fascinating since TABOR and other fiscal constraints have prevented us from funding infrastructure that keeps up with our current growth as it is.

In the last 25 years, Colorado’s population has increased by 64 percent (more than 2 million additional people). The vehicle miles traveled have increased by 82 percent. Annual congestion time in the urban metro areas has increased by 283 percent. Meanwhile, CDOT’s budget has only gone up by 31 percent and the state gas tax has remained flat at 22 cents per gallon. Since 1991.

What does any of this have to do with TABOR? And how does it harm Colorado’s way of life?

Every big policy question that Colorado faces depends to some degree on TABOR and other fiscal constraints – on schools, health care, housing, higher education, parks and public lands, job and economic growth, roads and infrastructure, and many other issues. And in many if not most cases, those questions come down to choosing between essential priorities that keep Colorado awesome.

The same cycle repeats itself, in good economic times and bad, where elected officials tell us we have to choose between vital priorities. Or even worse, they tell us simply that we can’t do something that we should, because of a formula or a constitutional constraint. Or because they don’t want to go to the ballot. Or because they don’t think it will pass.

Coloradans don’t want to hear that we can’t. We know that it doesn’t have to be this way if we don’t want it to be. We know that we shouldn’t have to constantly decide between urban and rural priorities, between funding schools and roads, or between improving health care and higher education. We know that as another 2 million people are anticipated to move here over the next two decades that we have to do it differently.

What makes Colorado so awesome and so special is that we are perfectly capable of respecting and supporting different ways of life in our state. But TABOR hinders and harms our capacity to do just that.

The solution is not to throw more money at every problem, but rather to rethink – with fresh eyes and new ideas – what fiscal policy makes sense to guide us going forward and consider whether TABOR should be a part of that for the next 25 years.

The role of good government isn’t to tell us how to live, but rather to help and support the communities that we want to live in. And we have to ask ourselves if TABOR does that: Does it support a government that works for all people and creates more opportunities to earn a good life

For the past 25 years, Colorado has held a unique position as the only state that restricts itself to governing by the TABOR formula. We’ve succeeded in many ways in spite of that, and been set back in many others. But we have a truly unique opportunity to reckon with whether this is the right policy to support our way of life for the next 25 years and beyond.

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