Referendum C promises lively election debate

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— It isn't even October yet. But statewide Referendum C already has generated more election rhetoric than any two ballot questions have in recent election cycles.

Referendum C proposes to relax temporarily the constraints on government spending put in place by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights in 1992. It would allow the state to keep revenues it collects above the TABOR limits for the next five years and spend the funds on education, health care or transportation projects. Referendum D, which could not be passed independently of C, would let the state borrow against Referendum C money in order to begin transportation and school construction projects. The measure enjoys broad support among elected

Democratic and Republican officials, but not all Republicans see it the same way.

"C stands for contempt of the intelligence of the voters," Steamboat Springs conservative activist Paul Epley said. "They say it's not a tax increase, but if it's not a tax, they don't need to even put it to a vote."

Already, a lawsuit has been filed to seek to change ballot language in Referendum C that says the measure would not result in a tax increase. Under TABOR, the state has refunded excess revenues to the taxpayers. However, the state stopped cutting checks to taxpayers in 2001 because that process was costly. Today, the state returns those monies in the form of tax credits.

Not all the tax credits are available to all taxpayers, so proponents and opponents of C and D find room to differ about how much taxpayers would give up if they approve Referendum C.

The nonpartisan staff of the Legislature says the average taxpayer would give up $491 in tax rebates during five years

Opponents say that when they divide the amount of forfeited tax refunds by the number of families who filed tax returns, an average family would give up $3,200 in those same five years.

Epley was one of the signers of a letter to the editor in August that branded members of his party who supported Referendum C and its companion Referendum D as "RINOs" -- Republicans in Name Only.

Gov. Bill Owens, state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, and state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, are RINOs in their view.

The people who signed the letter include several leaders of Routt County Republicans. However, chairwoman Jenn--ifer Schubert-Akin said the local chapter of the party has made a decision not to take a position on the two referendums because it knows its membership is split on the questions.

Epley said among 64 county chairpeople in Colorado, 60 are known to be against C and D.

Former chairman of the Routt County Republicans and former Colorado Transportation Commissioner Bill Haight is coordinating the local effort to push passage of the two measures, along with Democrat Ben Beall. Like Haight, Beall is a former Routt County commissioner and former chairman of his party.

"With the passage of C&D, a specific list of statewide construction projects will be able to be funded," Haight said. "These projects will include urban and rural projects."

Beall said education is not receiving the funding it needs for the state to remain competitive in the global economy.

"Passage of C and D will repair our poor school district buildings and offer tuition assistance for our college students," he said.

House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, an outspoken critic of C and D, said he thinks TABOR is doing what it was meant to do and referendums C and D would inappropriately hold the state budget harmless from economic downturns.

The Board of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Assoc--iation is on record in support of C and D.

"Business understands the importance for our Colorado economy of the necessity for increased spending on Colorado's infrastructure, such as K-12, higher education and transportation," Chamber Exec--utive Vice President Sandy Evans Hall said.

House Speaker Andrew Rom--anoff, D-Littleton, said in an appearance here in August that it's significant that if Referendum C is approved by the voters, it will forever provide Colorado government with relief from the much-discussed ratcheting-down effect of TABOR while keeping spending limits in place.

The ratchet comes into play when revenues drop below the previous year's spending. At that point, TABOR limits spending growth to that lower amount. Even if the economy rebounds quickly, spending can grow only from that new, lower floor. The growth in spending is limited to the rate of inflation plus state population growth.

Romanoff said the change is easiest to understand if voters think in terms of their own salaries. Consider a person making $40,000 annually, Romanoff said. Then imagine that, because of a recession, his employer cut his salary in half. If individual workers were subject to TABOR as it stands today, Romanoff said, even during an economic recovery, all of their future raises would be percentages on top of only $20,000. However, passage of Referendums C and D would restore their $40,000 salary and afford them bigger percentage raises in the future.

Epley agreed that some adj--ustments to the ratchet effect might be in order. But he objects strenuously to what he sees as an attack on TABOR. If elected officials want to spend more of the taxpayers' money on higher education or on highway improvements, they should come out and ask for permission in a straightforward yes or no vote, he said.

Taylor said he doesn't look forward to next year's state budget process if C and D do not pass. He observed that mandated program -- those that the Legislature is obligated to fund -- will consume an additional $200 million next year, even as the Legislature struggles to cut another $208 million from the budget because of TABOR's ratchet effect.

Stengel said there is no budget crisis in Colorado and that legislators need to do a better job of prioritizing spending. He said his colleagues, who he said support C and D because they see the share of unappropriated and available tax dollars dwindling, are legislators who want to fund new programs.

Referendum C is an attempt to kill TABOR outright, Epley said, and Gov. Owens should have bargained harder with democrats in the Legislature before compromising.

The governor should have held out for no more than a 12- to 18-month suspension of TABOR, Epley said, and tied the lull to a promise to ask the voters to change Amendment 23 and the Gallagher Amendment. Gallagher ensures that commercial property owners will pay a disproportional share of any jurisdiction's property tax burden. The net effect has been a chilling one on new property tax proposals.

Amendment 23 guarantees funding for K-12 education, and it effectively reduces the discretionary money the Legislature has to fund other programs.

Failing to link the TABOR timeout to Gallagher and Amend--ment 23 removes any incentive to tackle those vexing problems, Epley argues.

Epley also contended that the notion that TABOR will be restored to its original status after five years is naÃive. He said once the excess revenues are restored to the Legislature, they will be used to fund new jobs in government and raise salaries paid to existing government employees. There will be no retreating from that kind of growth in state spending, he contends.

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