Opinion: Amendment B ends a failed formula

Bernie Buescher
Colorado Coming Together

Amendment B repeals the Gallagher Amendment, offering mountain communities an exit ramp from a failed tax experiment that worsens by the year.

By voting “yes” on Amendment B, we help our struggling small businesses and prevent additional cuts to schools, first responders and front-line health workers at a time when we most need their services.

Property is taxed on a percentage of its assessed value: the tax rate. Residential properties (homes, condos, apartments) have one tax rate, and nonresidential properties (local businesses, manufacturing, farms and ranches) have another. Residential property tax rates are the same for a home in Aspen as they are for a home in Leadville. Likewise, a rancher in Kremmling has the same property tax rate as a coffee shop owner in Rifle.

In 1982, the Gallagher Amendment shoe-horned a formula into the state constitution mandating that 55% of property taxes must come from nonresidential properties and 45% come from residential properties. To make the formula work, as statewide home values increase, the residential property tax rate must decrease.

What Gallagher’s formula failed to account for is the population boom our state has seen over the years. Much of this is concentrated in the Denver metro area, where more than half the state’s population resides.

Explosive growth and soaring real estate prices in Denver have resulted in economic pain in mountain communities. Gallagher’s few remaining supporters would have us believe it still provides a good deal for Western Slope homeowners. In reality, Gallagher is a driving force behind perpetual tax hikes, woeful funding for services we depend on and economic consequences that threaten businesses and individuals.

In communities without a significant commercial property tax base, a drop in the residential rate leads to budget cuts for critical services. For nearly 40 years, Gallagher has squeezed many fire departments, ambulance districts, rural hospitals and libraries of the funding needed to simply maintain bare-bones operating budgets.

In Summit County and other mountain communities, this has forced service providers to continuously ask voters to approve local tax increases to counteract the outsize influence Denver real estate prices have on tax rates statewide. One of the sneakiest consequences of Gallagher is that it has spawned hundreds of local tax increases. And those increases maintain the same punitive split that requires our local businesses to pay a rate that is four times higher than that paid by homeowners.

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Our schools are another victim of Gallagher’s broken formula. Faced with the same issues of inadequate local funding caused by Gallagher, school districts increasingly rely on the state Legislature to backfill substantial budget shortfalls. This includes backfilling more than $250 million in K-12 funding next year on top of more than $1 billion in cuts that are already projected. If the state can find these funds in its beleaguered budget — which is a big if — it will be done by pulling money from projects and services that put Coloradans to work and stimulate our economy.

Without Amendment B, our local businesses will be saddled with 2021 property tax bills five times greater than what homeowners will pay. Just as our restaurants, coffee shops, day cares, farms and ranches attempt to recover from the body blows of a global pandemic and recession, Gallagher’s bizarre tax structure may be what knocks them out of business. Other businesses will not be able to add employees.

Amendment B fixes this situation simply, thoroughly and fairly. It removes Gallagher’s failed formula from our constitution and freezes property tax rates where they are currently: 7.1%. That means Colorado homeowners will keep a property tax rate that is the third lowest in the nation. Businesses in our communities will avoid a ballooning tax burden. This straightforward approach also provides direly needed budget stability to our vital services. And again, Amendment B accomplishes all of this without increasing property tax rates.

It’s important to remember that once frozen, property tax rates could be increased only by a vote of the people. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights gives the people the power to determine whether any future increase is needed.

Amendment B is common sense at its best. It’s supported by majorities of Republicans and Democrats in our state Legislature, prominent political leaders from both parties, and leaders in business, agriculture, education, public safety and fire protection. It is supported by groups as diverse as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the AFL-CIO. As a Western Slope native, I urge our communities to join this broad spectrum of support for this necessary solution. Vote “yes” on Amendment B.

Bernie Buescher is a former Colorado secretary of state and a Grand Junction native.

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