DENVER — Gov. Bill Owens got a warm reception when he showed up in Kansas last month and urged lawmakers to pass a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights limiting the ability of government to raise taxes. It was music to the ears of many fellow Republicans.
Back home, it’s been a different story. The governor has spent weeks urging majority Democrats to adopt his proposed fixes to the 1992 constitutional amendment that could force $234 million in spending cuts next year even as the state mails out tax refunds.
Owens and GOP lawmakers, in fact, have been going on the road for months to tout TABOR, the nation’s strictest tax-and-spending law for state government that requires, among other things, voter approval for tax hikes.
The problem is that TABOR is blamed for a host of problems, from cuts in school funding to preventing Colorado from bouncing back from the recession. Critics say other states should be wary before they jump on the smaller-government bandwagon and end up in the same dire straits.
“We have 13 years of experience that proves it’s a fatally flawed concept,” said Wade Buchanan, spokesman for the Bell Policy Center, a Denver-based group that opposes TABOR. He said conservative Republicans like Owens are peddling snake oil.
“They say the purpose is to squeeze government so small you can strangle it,” he said. “It’s not government; it’s schools, hospitals and care for the elderly that are being cut. The performance of Colorado is not a record that you hold out to other people.”
Ask around and you’ll hear that TABOR is to blame for the layoffs of 100 court employees around Colorado and for scrapping plans to hire 12 new judges. A grant program to provide legal services to uninsured victims of family violence is gone. Two years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Colorado a barely passing grade for the condition of state roads, and the proportion of low-income individuals enrolled in Colorado’s Medicaid program is lower than in all but five other states.
Kansas state Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, said Colorado still provides the best model for tax limits. She has a bill pending that would include an emergency fund with limits on when it could be used.
“We’ve learned from your mistakes,” she told a Colorado reporter. “Your economy is improving a lot faster than our economy because we’re running businesses out of Kansas. We’re not a tax-friendly state.”
Kansas is not alone. Gene Rose, spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said California, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Alaska, Virginia, Idaho and Nevada have all considered proposals over the past year. Only Maine has adopted a plan, and it sets government spending caps and expands tax-relief programs for homeowners and renters.
Owens contends TABOR is the main reason Colorado leads the country in per-capita income and is in the top 10 in personal income growth. But he warned against making some of the mistakes Colorado made that are now forcing lawmakers to ask voters to change the law.
Those mistakes include the failure to set aside money for bad economic times and a TABOR clause that bars the state from bouncing back to robust spending levels when the economy picks up.
Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute think tank, said TABOR does not need fixing. He said politicians want to change it because they don’t want to ask voters for permission to raise taxes.
“Under TABOR, government can grow as fast as it wants, government can grow as large as it wants. All they have to do is ask,” Caldara said.
But even some of the faithful are modifying the pitch.
Just last week, state Sen. Ron Teck told the Council of State Governments in Washington that tax limits are a good way to shrink government — over time.
Brad Young, now a former state representative, still makes pro-TABOR speeches but adds a warning: Run the numbers and make sure government can still meet the needs of its constituents.
“I let them know the full disclosure about what TABOR does. It shrinks government relative to the economy,” Young said.
Supporters of the amendment say Colorado’s problems are unique because lawmakers are caught between TABOR and Amendment 23, which requires annual increases in public school spending and was put in place to take education off the TABOR chopping block. Lawmakers failed to come up with a solution for the ballot last year as Republicans refused to do anything that would dismantle TABOR and Democrats vowed to protect Amendment 23.
Owens insists Colorado’s model will work in other states and it will work here, as long as voters understand what they’re being asked to change.
“Next year could be a real problem if we don’t do it right. We can’t ask the voters for a blank check,” said the governor, who will leave office in 2006 because of term limits.
Owens wants voters to let the state keep $500 million each year normally refunded under TABOR. He also wants to cut the state income tax from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent.
Democrats said the governor’s proposal is only a temporary fix. They want a 20- or 30-year plan and are offering the same income tax cut in their plan.
“There is an opportunity this presents to change the way the state does business,” said House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver.