Opinion | Bruce Butler: Fight over TABOR, property taxes continues

It is said that hope springs eternal. Indeed! Perhaps the Colorado Rockies can channel their inner Texas Rangers and improve from 103 losses in 2023 to winning the World Series in 2025. Even New Jersey voters mount a tax revolt roughly every 20 years. So, there is reason to be hopeful coming out of last Tuesday’s election.

Last Tuesday, Colorado voters rejected Proposition HH, which offered very short-term property tax mitigation in return for subversion of the 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), by a 60/40 margin. Even more amazing, Summit County voters, who rarely turn down opportunities to raise taxes, voted against Proposition HH by roughly the same margin. This means that even local Democrats and left-leaning unaffiliated voters are feeling the strain of continued high inflation and economic stagnation. Is this a sign that voters are tired of new taxes and expansive government reach and power? Only time will tell if this is a real realignment or a New Jersey-style revolt that quickly reverts to higher taxes and big government spending as usual.

On the heels of Proposition HH’s resounding defeat, Gov. Jared Polis has called the Colorado legislature back into special session later this week. State Democrats must figure out a new plan for mitigation of the massive property tax increase that is about to hit taxpayers’ wallets in 2024 or potentially face the wrath of voters next November. Time is of the essence because county governments must set their tax rates and approve their budgets for 2024 by Dec. 15. What the state legislature decides to do has a financial impact that makes it difficult for counties to act first. Some of the more conservative counties have moved to cut their local mill levy (property tax) rates, which is a good thing to do, but even they are in a Catch-22 depending upon what type of tax relief the state legislature decides to pass because they could end up with an unbalanced budget.

The special session will likely be a phenomenal example of government sausage-making because achieving consensus within the Democrat Caucus will be difficult, as progressive lefties will want new programs and subsidies for favored constituencies in return for property tax relief. Democrats who serve more affluent districts will face push back from their constituents for redistributionist tax refund formulas, favored by the left wing, that are not tied to actual taxes paid. Could this force the governor and more centrist legislators to reach out to Republicans to pass a bipartisan consensus stop gap measure? Only time will tell.

It would appear, the quick workable solution would be to “re-Gallagher” without passing a new constitutional amendment. The Gallagher Amendment was repealed by voters in 2020. The Gallagher amendment had its flaws, particularly with respect to commercial property taxes, but it capped property tax increases for residential properties, which would have blunted the huge increase in property values and assessments. The state legislature could simply pass a cap on the maximum amount property taxes can increase in 2024 and ultimately each year beyond. This would probably garner Republican support, but it is also a non-starter for many Democrats.

What is likely to happen in the special session? Gov. Polis has already called for a “Blue Ribbon” commission to make recommendations to address long-term property tax rate changes, which is political speak for “another shot at eliminating TABOR.” To mitigate tax bills due in 2024, I suspect legislators will still dig into the TABOR “surplus” or reserve funds to backfill funding for schools and local governments. My fear is there will be a push by the far left to implement nefarious policies like rent control in exchange for tax relief. Concern about higher tax costs being passed along by landlords to renters is a legitimate concern, as property taxes are a cost of business, but the solution is cut the landlord tax burden — not to create new subsidies or disincentives to own rental properties. Raising the cost of living to subsidize the cost of living is an approach that is destined to fail.

Congratulations to voters for rejecting Proposition HH, but don’t get complacent. The fight over TABOR, property taxes and government spending is far from settled.

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