Romanoff untying a bureaucratic knot
August 8, 2008
ASPEN ” Andrew Romanoff, the third most powerful politician in Colorado, just can’t help himself ” even while on a vacation, he takes time out to try to raise voter awareness and understanding of statewide political issues.
And his mission right now, he told The Aspen Times on Thursday, is to find a way to explain a proposed ballot initiative that tackles a highly complex issue, and to do so in layman terms.
Romanoff is the outgoing Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, because of term limits, and was in Aspen this week for the Wexner Heritage Fellowship. The two-year program is designed to educate young Jewish leaders in the traditions and tenets of the Jewish faith.
Romanoff is also leading a ballot initiative aimed at untying a bureaucratic knot that tightly restricts the state’s taxation powers, while simultaneously forcing the state to spend increasing amounts on education every year.
The initiative, known as the Savings Account For Education, or SAFE, would eliminate the tax-collecting restrictions imposed by the TABOR amendment, passed in 1992 after a highly contentious campaign. Colorado Springs landlord and anti-government activist Douglas Bruce authored the amendment, and is now a state legislator representing Colorado Springs.
The SAFE initiative also would repeal Amendment 23, passed in 2000, which requires state spending on education to rise by 1 percent every year, regardless of whether there is money coming in to support the increase.
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Thirdly, the initiative would permit the state government to ignore the provisions of the Arveschoug-Bird limit, legislation passed in 1991 that limits the growth of state taxation and expenditures to 6 percent per year.
“Our state’s got the squirreliest constitution in America,” Romanoff told The Aspen Times. “I think it’s squirrely because we put revenues on a downward staircase [the TABOR restrictions] and spending on an upward staircase [the annual increased under Amendment 23].”
The SAFE initiative, he said, would not only end that fiscal squeeze play, but it would permit the state to bank any one year’s budgetary surplus funds in the state education fund for future use.
The key, he said, is that the surplus funds could only be used for education-related purposes, including such things as pre-school through 12th-grade programs, teacher pay or performance incentives, school construction and other infrastructure expenditures.
But “the most important thing is, we preserve the heart of TABOR, which is the right to vote on taxes,” Romanoff said.
A key provision of the TABOR initiative, and one that observers believe was the reason it passed, was to require voter approval for any tax increase resulting in the increase of governmental revenues at a rate faster than the combined rate of population increase and inflation, as measured by either the cost of living index at the state level, or growth in property values at the local level. That provision would be retained under the SAFE initiative.
Plus, he said, the SAFE initiative does not call for any increase in tax rates, or for any new taxes, but provides that “we get to keep what we’re already collecting.”
Romanoff tried to win approval for a similar measure in 2005 but was stalemated by Gov. Bill Owens. He also recently tried to get fellow legislators to pass a SAFE-style set of laws, but got nowhere, which is why he turned to the initiative process.
The SAFE initiative already has encountered criticism, even though the secretary of state is not expected to certify the petition signatures until next week, at the earliest.
Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute, has criticized SAFE because it eliminates the TABOR taxpayer rebates ” which are not related to a taxpayer’s refund of overpayments of taxes.
But, Romanoff pointed out, “There hasn’t been a rebate in eight years,” and he could not recall the average size of the rebate checks that were sent out to the state’s taxpayers.
Bruce also is opposing the SAFE initiative.
“They keep saying it’s for the children; it’s not for the children. It’s for the bureaucrats,” Bruce told The Associated Press this week. “It’s a pernicious, evil, dishonest rip-off.”
Romanoff said the measure is critical because the state, in meeting the obligations of Amendment 23 as well as abiding by the TABOR restrictions, has been forced to neglect such things as road and bridge maintenance.
The SAFE initiative, he said, “lets us save money when times are good, so we don’t have to cut services when times are bad.” And providing funds for education, he said, will mean that money that had been earmarked for the schools can be used in other ways.
He noted that current projections indicate there will be no budget surpluses for Colorado in the next five years, meaning the flow of extra cash into the state education fund won’t start next year.
“So, if you’re looking for extra money right now, this ain’t it,” he said.
If the petition signatures are certified and the ballot question is secure, Romanoff plans to start crisscrossing the state to hold public meetings about the measure, as well as to add to the long list of bipartisan supporter he already has.
He said one of those meetings will be in the Aspen area, probably in September.
He also plans to begin raising money for advertising.
“We need both a ground game and an air war,” he said. “We expect we’ll have to raise several million dollars” to fend off opposition that he fears may be funded by out-of-state interests.