A group that might be kindly characterized as a “liberal watchdog,” the Colorado Ethics Watch, has released a list of “Colorado’s most corrupt public officials in 2008.” And who do you suppose was at the top of the list?
You guessed it — the oft-maligned former county commissioner and current state Rep. Douglas Bruce.
And why, you might ask, did the Dougster receive this dubious honor?
No, he didn’t take any payoffs from crooked contractors. And no, he didn’t steal from the collection plate at church. And no, he didn’t pad his expense accounts or set up a dummy company to bid for government contracts.
What he did was be himself — obnoxious, insulting, vituperative, combative and arrogant. He kicked a photographer, and refused to apologize. He owns vacant, dilapidated properties and refuses to repair them — local ordinances be damned. He coarsely insults his colleagues and bullies anyone who can’t, or won’t, fight back.
He’s a jerk — but he’s not corrupt.
His principal claim to fame — or to infamy, if you prefer — is his authorship of TABOR, the 1991 tax limitation amendment. Depending on your perspective, TABOR is either a convoluted disaster or the best thing since sliced bread.
Stripped of its ancillary provisions, at TABOR’s core is a simple principle: voters must approve any long-term debt or new taxes that any Colorado government intends to implement.
Republicans are particularly fond of TABOR. No Colorado Springs Republican in recent memory has been elected to office without swearing eternal fealty to the principles of TABOR, even including such exotic Bruceian add-ons as revenue caps and compulsory refunds.
It’s more than a little surprising then that local elected officials in Colorado Springs, Republicans every one, have frequently, flagrantly and cheerfully ignored TABOR. Taking advantage of exotic loopholes, they’ve managed to contract tens of millions of dollars in long-term debt and push through a substantial tax increase without voter approval.
Let’s look at so-called “certificates of participation,” or COPS. These debt instruments are in fact long-term debt obligations whose convoluted structure is such that the courts, on narrow technical grounds, have decided that they aren’t really long-term debt and are therefore not subject to voter approval.
The city has used COPS to renovate City Hall, to build community centers and most recently to keep the U.S. Olympic Committee in town by providing $27 million to renovate a pair of buildings. The county has been even more profligate, issuing more than $50 million in COPS to build a new courthouse and expand the jail — and this after the voters had specifically rejected funding both projects.
Tax increases? No problem! Just call it a fee.
The Stormwater Enterprise is a laudable and eminently necessary part of government, but the quarterly payment that all property owners must pay isn’t a fee — it’s a tax.
For the simple-minded among us, the difference between a tax and a fee is clear. Taxes support services that are vital and general-public safety, transportation, parks and … storm drainage! Fees support services that might be important, desirable and useful, but which citizens don’t have to use. That might include municipal tennis courts or even utility services.
Fee-based services are divisible and voluntary; you pay for what you use.
The stormwater fee fails all of these tests. The service provided is a fundamental government service, which ought to be supported by taxation.
Our elected officials chose to circumvent TABOR in these cases for two overriding reasons: they thought the projects were absolutely vital and they feared (probably correctly) that the voters would refuse to fund them.
So they went ahead and blew off both TABOR and its author, and guess what? Nothing happened.
The voters didn’t rise as one and throw the rascals out of office. They just shrugged their shoulders, paid the new tax/fees, didn’t worry about the new debts and … re-elected the rascals!
We’ll vote for TABOR one day and applaud efforts to undermine it the next. We understand that our pols, like us, are just trying to do a job, and sometimes they have to cut corners and take risks just to get things done.
That’s just the way things are.
And that’s why the Dougster, although he may be a jerk, isn’t corrupt. And neither are his fellow pols, who are for the most part not very successful, paunchy, balding middle-aged white guys enjoying their brief moment of fame.
Just like Doug.
And just like me (except for the balding part).
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.