Colorados battle lines are drawn

There’s a battle going on in Colorado that will shape the future of the Republican Party in that state. It’s certain to have repercussions in other states, too, because this clash is being followed closely everywhere.

There’s a battle going on in Colorado that will shape the future of the Republican Party in that state. It’s certain to have repercussions in other states, too, because this clash is being followed closely everywhere.

Republicans are fighting among themselves over whether to approve Referenda C and D, two ballot measures on state fiscal policies. The warring factions of Republicans are both conservative, but they disagree about the ways and means of government.

On one side are what I would call the “governing Republicans,” those who favor good government administration because they see that as a means to building and maintaining a durable Republican majority. The other side in this dispute is the “disestablishmentarian” faction (I’ll call them the “dissers” for short) that wants no part of government and therefore cares little about maintaining a Republican majority to manage and control government. The dissers are mostly anarchists or closeted libertarians who pose as Republicans to maintain some respectability.

In a nutshell, here’s a description of the issue that has forced these two groups into mortal conflict. In 1992, Colorado’s voters passed a taxpayers bill of rights, known colloquially by the acronym TABOR. If you have read other descriptions of TABOR, keep reading, because so many characterizations of it are incomplete or inaccurate.

This amendment to the state’s Constitution had five major provisions, all of which apply to the state, local governments and schools. First, it requires voter approval of all tax increases and debt instruments such as bonds. Second, it requires that all fiscal elections be held in November, thereby preventing efforts to sneak taxes by voters at low-turnout, special elections in March or August. Third, TABOR mandates the language of the tax measures placed before voters, specifying language designed to scare voters from approving tax increases. Fourth, there is a limit or cap on spending by state and local governments that is calculated by formula. And fifth, unless voters vote to break that cap, any excess revenues are to be returned to voters in the form of a rebate.

Now comes the recession, and Colorado’s governments at all levels are struggling to keep up with the demands of a very fast-growing state. So to make ends meet, hundreds of counties, municipalities and school districts have had elections to break their local spending caps, and more than 80 percent of these proposals have passed.

The state, meanwhile, has struggled financially. Medicaid has been a budget buster. Gov. Bill Owens (R) has courageously cut more than $1 billion out of the state budget. He’s repeatedly proved his mettle as a fiscal conservative.

But he’s also forward-looking and smart enough to see that he’s running out of options. Some of his biggest cuts have come at the expense of higher education, which Owens sees as crucial to his state’s economic future. He also knows that if he doesn’t get more revenue, in 10 years there will be not one cent in the state’s budget for higher education. That’s just one fact that moved the governor to action.

Owens negotiated with the Democrat-controlled legislature to hammer out a compromise proposal to break Colorado’s spending cap for five years, a “temporary timeout” from the spending limitations of TABOR that will allow the state to catch up from recessionary cuts. This proposal, on a statewide level, is akin to the measures that have already been approved by voters for their local governments.

Most important, Referenda C and D leave in place all the other key components of TABOR. Voters will still vote on all revenue measures at November elections, and the ballot language will still be fiscally conservative by mandate.

The dissers are unimpressed and intend to pull the roof down on the heads of Colorado, the Republican Party and even themselves if need be. In next week’s column, the last before the Nov. 1 referendum, I’ll dissect their campaign of lies and deception.


Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.