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Colorado task force charged with finding a long-term property tax solution won’t include people behind 2024 ballot measures

Lawmakers are trying to come up with a fix after Proposition HH failed in the November election. But conservatives, liberals and businesses are offering their own solutions
New homes built in the Railyard Neighborhood in Leadville on Aug. 7. 2023. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The task force charged with finding a long-term solution to Coloradans’ rising property tax bills after the failure of Proposition HH in the November election won’t include a key set of power players: people who are pursuing or already have measures on the 2024 ballot that would change the state’s property tax code.

The legislation forming the task force, passed by the Democratic majority at the Colorado Capitol during the special legislative session that wrapped up just before Thanksgiving, bars anyone who is a “designated representative” of a 2024 property tax ballot measure or who is a member of an issue committee that supports or opposes such an initiative from being one of the 19 appointees to the panel.

That includes activists and business leaders like Michael Fields, who runs Advance Colorado, the conservative political nonprofit behind a measure on the 2024 ballot that would cap annual property tax increases at 4%; Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, the liberal political nonprofit pursuing two ballot initiatives for next year that would counteract Fields’ proposal in part by raising property tax rates on more expensive homes; and Mike Kopp, the CEO of Colorado Concern, a nonprofit representing business leaders that wants to ask voters to roll back property valuations to their early pandemic levels and then limit future value increases.

“We didn’t want the commission to turn into a place where commissioners were just trying to advocate for their own ballot measure,” said Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the task force bill.

But the decision to exclude people like Fields, Wasserman and Kopp from the task force, whose members will be bipartisan and represent different interests and different parts of the state, may make it harder to persuade voters in 2024 to adopt a change with longevity. If there are multiple, seemingly competing initiatives on next year’s ballot, they all run the risk of being rejected or, in a policy nightmare, passing in some wacky combination and upending state and local budgets.

Part of the reason Proposition HH, which would have offered at least 10 years of property tax relief, was rejected Nov. 7 was because it confused voters, proponents and opponents of the measure agree. The initiative’s failure forced Gov. Jared Polis to call the special session, during which lawmakers passed property tax relief for the 2023 tax year only. If a longer-term fix isn’t adopted, homeowners’ property tax bills will shoot up in 2024 and beyond.

The task force will have its hands full when it starts meeting next week.

A long-term solution to property taxes has proven elusive since 2020, when voters repealed the Gallagher Amendment, which prevented property tax bills from rising too quickly but caused government budget headaches. That’s because property taxes are so complicated and politically fraught.

Property taxes fund schools and local governments, including districts that operate everything from fire departments and water infrastructure to libraries and parks. Even slight tweaks to the statewide property tax code can have big and disparate funding effects on state and local budgets. The fact that housing prices differ from region to region across Colorado make the problem ever more complex.

Wasserman, for one, thinks the provision governing who can be on the task force is “a fair parameter,” because anyone with a preconceived notion of what the property tax code should look like probably isn’t right for such a commission. That being said, he still thinks the task force’s work will be informed by the proposals offered by his group and others.

“I have to believe there will be cross-pollination,” he said.

But Fields said he doesn’t “have a whole lot of faith” in the task force. He thinks members of the panel will come to the work with ready-made ideas and are unlikely to budge from their positions. Schools and local districts, for instance, won’t want to see revenue reductions, while Republicans won’t want to cut into the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights surplus, which funds state taxpayer refunds, to offset the effect of the cuts on local governments.

“I think it’s unrealistic that you’re going to have people in there who are going to be swayed by conversation,” he said.

The reality is that the proposals offered by Wasserman, Fields and Kopp are meant as much to shape the property tax conversation as they are to be real solutions.

Fields has told The Colorado Sun he would pull his measure, Initiative 50, off the 2024 ballot if the legislature comes up with what he thinks is a suitable alternative. He said that would have to include some sort of a cap on annual property tax increases, which may be a nonstarter for Democrats.

Kopp, who didn’t respond to text messages seeking comment, has also suggested that Colorado Concern would back down if the legislature comes up with something else the nonprofit feels is adequate.

“Our filing today represents the beginning, not the end of the process,” Kopp said earlier this month in a news release rolling out Colorado Concern’s proposal. “We look forward to working with leaders in the state Capitol and, more importantly, civic and business leaders outside of the legislative arena, to implement a plan that protects the taxpayers of this state.”

Initiative 50 is the only property tax ballot measure so far to qualify for the 2024 ballot.

The supporters of the other proposals must collect roughly 125,000 voter signatures to make the ballot. If their measure seeks to change the state constitution, the signatures must represent include at least 2% of voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts to qualify.

Measures changing the state constitution must be approved by at least 55% of voters to pass.

Appointments to the task force will be made by Dec. 4 and the commission will start meeting the next day. Meetings will continue at least twice a month through at least mid-March, when it must present its findings to the governor and the legislature.

The legislature set aside $121,000 to fund the task force’s work, including for nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff to pay a research analyst and economist to assist the commission. The money will also pay for a third-party facilitator for the task force.

The task force is specifically charged with identifying, considering and evaluating “legislative options for a permanent and sustainable property tax structure for the state,” including potentially a question to go before voters on the November 2024 ballot.

Any proposal the commission comes up with must be “sustainable for local governments and public schools,” and the task force must take into consideration long-term impacts to property owners and housing affordability, including for renters and people with low incomes.

Here’s who will be on the panel:

  • Two state representatives, one of whom will be appointed by the Democratic House Speaker Julie McCluskie and the other who will be appointed by the top Republican in the chamber, House Minority Leader Mike Lynch
  • Two state senators, one of whom will be appointed by the Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg and the other who will be appointed by the top Republican in the chamber, Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen
  • JoAnn Groff, Colorado’s property tax administrator
  • A mayor or city council person, appointed by the Colorado Municipal League, which represents towns and cities across the state
  • A current or former county assessor, appointed by Polis
  • Ann Terry, the executive director of the Special District Association of Colorado
  • A chief financial officer of a school district, appointed by the Colorado Association of School Executives
  • A representative of a statewide organization that has expertise in Colorado school funding policy or a statewide organization that represents Colorado educators, appointed by Fenberg
  • A representative from an organization that represents Colorado commercial or residential property owners, appointed by Lynch
  • A fire chief, appointed by the Colorado State Fire Chiefs
  • A representative from an organization that advocates for low-income people, seniors, people with fixed incomes or residential tenants, appointed by McCluskie
  • The executive director of a statewide or regional business organization, appointed by Lundeen
  • One county commissioner from the Front Range region, appointed by Fenberg
  • One county commissioner from the mountain region, appointed by McCluskie
  • One county commissioner from the eastern region of the state, appointed by Lynch
  • One county commissioner from the southern region of the state, appointed by Lundeen
  • One county commissioner from the western region of the state, appointed by Polis

The legislature reconvenes for its regular lawmaking term in January. The General Assembly will then be in session through early May.

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