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Our View: Managing the state budget

Governor’s request for funding could be beginning of long-overdue discussion

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is asking the state Legislature to earmark $1.8 billion in state money to cover future bills and to fend off what members of the governor’s team call a “structural deficit.” Republicans in state government deny the existence of such a threat and oppose setting aside the funds.

That sounds like just another political squabble, but it could also be an opportunity. It could be the beginning of a long-overdue discussion about the screwball way this state manages its fiscal affairs.

The “structural deficit” referred to is, at least in part, a function of the interaction of ballot measures – principally the so-called Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and Amendment 23.

In part, this reflects Colorado voters’ fondness for passing ballot measures and the fact the state Constitution allows that with little or no consideration for how they interact. Amendment 23, for example, is a well-intentioned measure that boosted spending for schools and requires state government to make up any shortages in local funding.

That money comes out of the state’s General Fund. And the governor should include in his plan a way to repay the money the state “borrowed” from schools more than a decade ago.

Gallagher was repealed in 2020, but for 38 years it fixed the ratio of tax revenue between residential and commercial property and the assessment rate for commercial property. Building houses – and adding school-age children – served to increase schools’ costs, but not necessarily the property tax revenue to fund them. Under Gallagher, the state’s K-12 funding responsibilities kept increasing. Then its repeal froze the residential tax rate at less than a quarter of that for commercial property.

Then there is TABOR. (The sort-of acronym had marketing value; Tabor is a storied name in Colorado. See: Baby Doe Tabor.)

TABOR has wheels within wheels. Among other things, it requires a vote of the people to increase taxes and, without such a vote, limits government revenue to that of the last year plus inflation and population increase. So, if the economy is booming and the state’s revenue exceeds the TABOR limit – even with existing tax rates – the state must refund the difference. Because the state cannot control the world economy or advances in technology, the net effect is to ratchet down state revenue.

TABOR was the brainchild of Douglas Bruce, a one-time Californian who found fertile ground for his anti-government ideas in Colorado Springs. He is also asking why voting to exempt a Colorado county or school district from the requirements of TABOR, as many have, is called de-Brucing.

Whether Polis’ plan to set aside a couple billion dollars is the best way to handle the situation remains to be seen. But with critics already calling it an “attack on TABOR,” it could be the start of a much-needed discussion about how Colorado funds state government, education and other programs.

Amendment 23 dates to the year 2000. TABOR was passed in 1992. It is past time for exactly that debate.