Colorado officials file lawsuit challenging TABOR
May 24, 2011
DENVER – A group of Democratic and Republican officials said Monday they filed a legal challenge against a 1992 initiative that imposed strict limits on taxing and spending, calling the measure an unconstitutional “straitjacket” that renders the legislative branch ineffective.
The lawsuit in federal court aims to undo the state’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights, commonly known in Colorado as TABOR. The lawsuit contends the initiative is unconstitutional “because it deprives the state and its citizens of effective representative democracy.”
More than 30 current and former public officials joined the lawsuit.
Jon Caldara, a prominent TABOR supporter and president of the conservative Independence Institute, said the lawsuit has a “one in a bazillion chance” of succeeding.
“It’s not dead on arrival. It’s laughable on arrival,” he said.
Colorado lawmakers have been divided on the merits of the initiative since voters approved it as a state constitutional amendment in 1992. It requires lawmakers to ask voters to raise taxes and limits the amount of tax revenue the state can keep and spend because government can’t grow faster than the combined rate of inflation and population growth. However, TABOR makes no provision for rising productivity, so if incomes rise, taxes stay flat.
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As of last year, 30 states had some type of tax or spending limitations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but analysts say Colorado has the most stringent tax-and-spend requirements.
Colorado is among three states, along with Oregon and Oklahoma, that have a combination of tax and spending limits, but Colorado is the only one that requires voter approval for all tax increases, NCSL said. Missouri and Washington require voter approval for taxes, but only when they’re over a certain amount.
The Florida Legislature agreed earlier this month to put a measure modeled after TABOR on the state’s 2012 November ballot. Last month, Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a proposed spending limit similar to Colorado’s formula, saying the measure would be too restrictive.
“We should learn from the state of Colorado that experimented with a similar mechanism, an experience that failed,” Brewer said at the time.
Colorado lawmakers who oppose TABOR say in the lawsuit that the state has “experienced a slow, inexorable slide into fiscal dysfunction” since its passage.
“TABOR is a unique monstrosity,” said Sen. John Morse, the Democratic leader in the state Senate. “It’s taken everybody a long time to figure out what it is and what it does.”
Caldara said he doesn’t buy the argument that lawmakers are currently hamstrung by TABOR’s spending limits because voters approved a referendum in 2005 that allowed state government to keep all revenues it collected for the next five years.
“The reason they can’t do their jobs is because they spend too much,” Caldara said. “If anybody claims that TABOR is tying their hands right now, then they are not qualified to be an elected official because they don’t understand the law.”