Colorado is unique in having the strongest protections against misuse of taxpayer money in the country in the form of its Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). But while its protections have been steadily whittled away over the years, a ballot measure set to appear before taxpayers in November could make TABOR’s condition terminal.
Generally speaking, TABOR requires excess revenue to be refunded to taxpayers and necessitates direct taxpayer approval for tax increases. Unsurprisingly, that’s proven to be a substantial nuisance to legislators intent on pushing tax-and-spend policies.
It’s not a perfect shield. The most common workaround in Colorado is to inaccurately designate tax increases as new “fees” that do not require voter approval. Even so, it generally prevents overt tax increases from getting by taxpayers without their knowledge and consent — a distinction few other states can claim.
But no such finagling with the English language can prevent taxpayers from receiving TABOR refunds. That’s why, this November, state Democrats are taking a shot at using clever formulation of a ballot measure question to mislead taxpayers about what they’re actually voting on.
Proposition HH would essentially require local governments to deduct $50,000 off of homeowners’ home value assessments for property tax purposes — for example, a home assessed at $350,000 would only owe property tax on $300,000 in home value. But Proposition HH would then use the funds that would have gone towards Coloradoans’ TABOR refunds to pay local governments for the lost property tax revenue.
In essence, it’s a shell game, but one that results in TABOR being fatally weakened — a study by the Colorado-based Common Sense Institute estimated that households would lose $5,119 in foregone TABOR refunds, an amount exceeding the benefit of reduced property taxes. What’s more, while the law only lasts a decade, it can be extended by the state legislature with no subsequent voter approval. None of that is clear in the text of the ballot measure Coloradoans will be voting on.
The full text of the ballot measure is as follows: “Shall the state reduce property taxes for homes and businesses, including expanding property tax relief for seniors, and backfill counties, water districts, fire districts, ambulance and hospital districts, and other local governments and fund school districts by using a portion of the state surplus up to the Proposition HH cap as defined in the measure.”
Nowhere in that measure do the words “TABOR” or “refund” appear. The only real inquisitive phrase in the measure is “Shall the state reduce property taxes,” and few homeowners would ever answer “no” to that question — especially with Colorado property tax assessments rising rapidly.
Unsurprisingly then, a recent poll by Magellan Strategies found that 54 percent of Colorado voters supported the ballot measure after only reading the text of it, while just 34 percent opposed it. But when those same voters were informed about the full pros and cons of the law, especially including the loss of TABOR refunds, voters became split — with 43 percent supporting the measure compared to 46 percent opposing it.
Unfortunately, after a failed attempt to get the Colorado Supreme Court to strike down the measure for its misleading text, it is now up to Coloradans to go above and beyond in learning what Proposition HH will actually do. If they don’t, the gold standard of taxpayer protections may soon be in serious jeopardy.