When voter amendments backfire

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Over the last three decades, the Colorado constitution has been amended more than 40 times. Voters have approved amendments that have limited spending, increased spending, lowered taxes, and which have imposed sharply different tax rates upon different kinds of property.

These amendments have sometimes clashed, yielding consequences have proved to be unpredictable, unanticipated and, more often than not, unintended.

Next week, Colorado’s Future, a broad-based non-partisan group of prominent Coloradans, will be in Colorado Springs for the latest in a series of meetings it has organized statewide to explore problems in the initiative process and whether change is needed.

Here’s a look at six of the more high-profile constitutional amendments that have reshaped life in Colorado, sometimes in ways that fell far short of their supporters’ intent — as well as far beyond.

Gallagher

Noting the popularity of Proposition 13, which had reduced California’s property tax revenue by 57 percent, Colorado legislators referred the “Gallagher Amendment” to forestall a similar measure. Written to protect homeowners, especially elderly people on fixed incomes, from substantial property tax increases as a result of rising home values, the amendment fixed the overall share of statewide property tax revenue paid by homeowners at 45 percent of the total, with commercial property owners paying 55 percent.

To many, it sounded like a good idea. But since the amendment’s passage in 1982, the aggregate value of residential property in Colorado has grown three times faster than that of commercial property. In order to maintain the 45-55 ratio, residential property tax rates have been repeatedly cut while the commercial rate has remained the same.

The amendment has kept residential tax rates low, but with consequences that voters may not have intended. Since commercial rates have remained the same, commercial property owners have shouldered more and more of the tax burden, which may have inhibited business growth and commercial property development.

TABOR

In 1992, voters approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, a complex, multi-faceted amendment that impacted a range of Colorado governments from rural fire districts to the state itself. TABOR requires voter approval of any tax increase, which the amendment defines narrowly and rigidly. It also limits the revenue that any governmental entity can collect, regardless of tax rate, to a predetermined formula. At the state level, revenue cannot increase from one year to the next by more than the increase in population plus inflation.

Colorado grew rapidly in the early years of TABOR. According to the Bell Policy Center, “from 1991 to 2001, Colorado was the third-fastest-growing state as measured by state gross product and by employment growth. State revenue grew with the economy, far exceeding the state’s TABOR limit. Between 1997 and 2001, TABOR required the state to rebate a total of $3.2 billion in revenues that came in above the TABOR limit.”

Assuming that such fevered growth would continue indefinitely, the legislature cut state sales and income taxes by $800 million in 2000, reasoning there was no sense in collecting revenue that would just have to be returned.

Because each year’s limit is determined by the revenue collected in the previous year, governments cannot easily bounce back from one or two years of depressed revenue collections. In 2005, statewide voters repealed the so-called TABOR ratchet by approving referendum C, which gave the state a five-year “time out” from TABOR’s revenue limits.

Voters in many other jurisdictions have approved “de-Brucing” measures, but Colorado Springs voters have yet to loosen the restrictions of the city’s “mini-TABOR” charter amendment, approved in 1991 in a campaign led by anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce.

Amendment 23

In 2000, voters passed Amendment 23, which required per-pupil funding for K-12 education to increase by inflation plus 1 percent each year through fiscal 2010-11. After 2011, per-pupil K-12 funding still must increase each year by at least the rate of inflation.

The purpose of Amendment 23 was to bring Colorado public school funding up to the national average. It was written to combat the effects of TABOR and Gallagher, which together had significantly reduced funding to K-12 education. Gallagher had reduced property tax collections, while Tabor made reductions irreversible and required the state to refund billions in revenue.

That interaction caused the local property tax base for K-12 education to decline significantly. In the last 20 years, the local share of K-12 funding has dropped from 57 percent to 35 percent, while the state’s share has risen proportionately.

Once a leader in funding public education, Colorado’s ranking had slipped to the bottom quintile by 2000. Advocates of Amendment 23 warned that unless voters mandated increased K-12 funding, the state’s public school system would be at serious risk.

Amendment 23 passed easily, but Colorado’s once-booming economy faltered. The multiple conflicting mandates of TABOR, Gallagher and 23 created entangled dilemmas that continue to vex Colorado legislators and residents alike. That’s because TABOR effectively mandates revenue reductions and spending cuts, Gallagher mandates residential mill levy reductions, and 23 mandates increased spending.

Medical marijuana

Voters passed Amendment 20 in 2000, allowing people suffering from specified medical conditions to possess up to two ounces of marijuana or six growing plants. Supporters of the amendment emphasized that it would make marijuana legally available only to those who couldn’t tolerate other forms of treatment. Marijuana, they pointed out, is often more effective and less toxic than common prescription drugs, so why not allow its medical use under carefully controlled circumstances?

A legal framework created a confidential registry of Coloradans who could use medical marijuana. But then the Colorado Department of Public Health determined that caregivers were restricted to seeing no more than five patients, strictly limiting pot shops.

Seven years after the amendment passed, only a few hundred residents had qualified for “marijuana cards.” But in 2007, a Denver district court judge threw out the five-patient limit, holding that Amendment 20 had not specified any particular limit.

Within months, Colorado entrepreneurs had created a booming new industry.Today, more than 20,000 Colorado residents are legally qualified to buy, possess and consume medical marijuana.

Amendment 20’s ambiguities may eventually be resolved by the courts, but in the meantime the amendment has created a chaotic donnybrook.

Among the thornier questions: Are the dispensaries, caregivers and the growers that supply them drug dealers taking advantage of legal loopholes, or are they kindly herbalists ministering to the sick?

Amendment 41

Sponsored by Colorado Common Cause and funded by Jared Polis, a Boulder multimillionaire who won election to Congress in 2006, Amendment 41 was advertised as a way to curb the excesses of lobbyists and influence peddlers. Opponent characterized it as misleading, overly broad and possibly unconstitutional.

The amendment prohibits Colorado public officials, government employees and their immediate family members from receiving “gifts” exceeding $50 from anyone but friends and relatives, and then only on “special occasions.”

The amendment passed easily, but the battle had just begun. Opponents went to court and won an injunction, arguing that the gift ban was so vague and all-inclusive that the children of public employees would be ineligible for scholarships at state-supported colleges and universities.

In February of 2008, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the injunction, and declined to rule on the merits of the amendment. Since then, the commission has issued opinions which limit the amendment’s scope, and align it more precisely with its intended purpose.

Yet as opponents predicted, it has also become a useful political weapon.

For example, Senate majority leader John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) was the object of a complaint by a Colorado Springs resident, who claimed two weeks ago that he was paying only $500 a month rent for a Denver condo with a rental value of $2,600 monthly.

Morse responded that he’s only renting a room in the condo.

“This is nonsense,” Morse said. “There is no way this is an Amendment 41 violation.”

Amendment 54

Amendment 54, called by its supporters the Colorado Clean Government Initiative, was narrowly approved by Colorado voters in 2008. It prohibited campaign contributions from any holder of “sole source government contracts” totaling $100,000 or more. It also prohibited immediate family members of holders of such contracts from contributing to any political campaign or candidate who may have influence over the contract.

Endorsed by the conservative Independence Institute, and fronted by former Republican elected official Tom Lucero, the amendment was sold as a way to curb “pay-to-play” contracting. In reality, opponents claimed, it had little to do with corrupt contracting practices. By including “certain collective bargaining agreements” among sole-source contractors, the amendment’s real purpose was to muzzle unions and union members, they said.

Opponents successfully sought an injunction, arguing that the amendment was an unconstitutional assault upon the right to free speech.

On Feb. 22, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the amendment in its entirety. Writing for a 4-1 majority, Justice Nancy Rice said, “Many of Amendment 54’s component parts are unconstitutionally vague, disproportional, overbroad, or otherwise infirm.”

5 Responses to When voter amendments backfire

  1. Why do the liberals always feel entitled to my money to solve the problems they created? The lazy lowlife non-workers and the barfly welfare queens with their out-of-wedlock progeny do NOT deserve even one cent of my wages. I need to provide fo my wife and children and cannot do that vey well if I also have to provide for them and theirs. IF YOU CAN’T FEED ‘EM,DON’T BREED EM!!!!!!

    Dustin
    March 27, 2010 at 9:47 am

  2. ~ The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not ~ Thomas Jefferson

    Seems like THE people prefer less taxation and the ability to spend Their money as they see fit instead of letting Their government spend it the way they want.

    ~ “The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.” Quotation of George Washington

    jocko
    March 27, 2010 at 1:05 pm

  3. I’m still waiting for the first politician, of any party, to advocate for the end of Social Security and Medicare,

    tykle
    March 28, 2010 at 3:21 pm

  4. Sounds like the same nonsense that you would hear from a politician. Which reminds me… Hazelhurst was one at one time…

    Victor
    March 29, 2010 at 11:07 am

  5. Interesting article, Is it too late to get invited to the meeting in Colo. Springs? I find the Gallagher and Tabor amendments particularly interesting as a former auditor of small local governments, and a commercial property owner. In addition, I will be term limited at the end of April after serving 18-1/2 years as a board member of our local special district hospital.

    I have expressed concerns regarding our hospital district tax revenues climbing exponentially out of control each year for the last 14 years and particularly because of my sensitivity as a commercial taxpayer. I am pleased to know that I am not alone in my thoughts.

    Bruce
    April 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm