Monday, January 19, 2009

Budget crisis presents a political opportunity on TABOR

It looks as though members of the Colorado legislature are in talks to formulate a bi-partisan fix to TABOR. The Denver Post reports,

During a legislative session in which budget cuts will dominate the debate, several state political players from both parties have had initial but serious discussions about whether to take on that most famous of the state's budget-binders: the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

In fact, some lawmakers opposed to TABOR said the current economic gloom might just provide the opening needed to defeat their old foe.

"There's a consensus that the constitution doesn't allow the legislature to deal with the issues facing the state," said state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. ". . . I think there's a feeling we need to do something."

TABOR, among many other things, constrains the budget during healthy years by placing a revenue cap on the state. All revenue that comes in over that cap must be refunded. Generally speaking, Republicans adore the limitations and Democrats despise them.

The measure's revenue limitations are in a timeout scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, though state coffers wouldn't be bumping up against the cap this year anyway.

Last week several lawmakers — including Heath, House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, and Sen. Al White, R-Hayden — held a meeting about what to do with TABOR. Heath described the meeting as a "free-flowing conversation" in which the participants agreed on the need to do something.

"But that something is nowhere near decided," he said.

"We were just kicking it around philosophically to see what kind of coalition might be out there," White said.

Evan Dreyer, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Ritter, said representatives from the governor's office also have spoken with lawmakers about pursuing a TABOR change, something Ritter urged legislators to do during his State of the State speech.

And Heath said he has also talked with University of Colorado President Bruce Benson and Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce boss Joe Blake.

Until TABOR is eliminated Colorado will continue to be a Deep Southern state located in the Mountain West. It's a tragedy that a state with the economic and intellectual resources of Colorado is doomed to rank as the 48th or 49th state in the nation in public health and education measurements. Our lawmakers are prevented from saving for hard times and from capitalizing on the good times to keep our state services functioning. Coloradans already enjoy a a very low tax burden, allowing government revenues to keep up with inflation and thus to continue to fund essential services is not a radical leftist position, indeed it is the only sensible position.

To give an example of how TABOR is damaging the state lets look at transportation and the gas tax. Colorado has not raised its gas tax since 1992 when TABOR passed. Gas tax revenues are directed towards critical transportation infrastructure issues. Current gas tax rates are about 40 cents a gallon, if we had kept up with inflation our current rate should be about 58 cents/gallon. Current transportation funding needs are pegged at about $1.5 billion but the legislature and the governor have, essentially, no way to raise those needed funds. The consequences of this are that Coloradans lives are at risk. The Rocky Mountain News reported in the wake of the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse that,

Nearly seven percent of bridges in Colorado are labeled structurally deficient, the same federal rating given the span that collapsed Wednesday in Minneapolis.

Among them is a Denver span traveled by more than 139,000 motorists daily, a crumbling 43-year-old concrete stretch of Interstate 70 described as the worst in Colorado by Mark Leonard, the chief state bridge engineer...

Colorado has 3,757 bridges owned by the state and more than 4,790 bridges owned by cities and counties. Of the 3,757 state-owned spans, 110 are considered in need of replacement and another 375 are in need of rehabilitation, said CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.

Stegman said CDOT spends about $30 million a year on bridge repair and replacement. The department’s annual budget is $1 billion.

Is it going to take a similar tragedy here in Colorado to move the TABOR ideologues in to action? Sadly I believe the answer is yes.

Pols chimed in this morning and pointed the finger squarely at the new young face of the state GOP,

Isn't Josh Penry's hubris-riddled statement exactly what we're talking about? It's not even cute anymore, it's a simple inability to see beyond one's own nose. To willfully refuse to acknowledge the underlying issues that impact Penry's and the whole state government's ability to function...well, it's not quite the opposite of leadership, but it's pretty close.

On the other hand, Democrats say sure--cast your lot with the throwback Doug Bruce TABOR warriors. Grandstand on yesterday's battlefields. Tell us how great it is now that the government is broke like you've wanted for years. Better educated voters may be waiting in 2010 to make the whole Republican party pay dearly for it, to the dismay of Benson and other more reasonable figures.

This is something that former GOP Governor Bill Owens, for all his faults, began to realize toward the end of his term. Sometimes the ideology must give way in the face of reality--just a little, just enough that we can continue arguing about "big" or "small" government against the backdrop of a functioning government. But Senator Penry, it seems you're no Bill Owens. And yes, the fact that you take that as a compliment is part of the problem.

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