Giving Thought: Coalition addresses ‘unintended consequences’ in Colorado Constitution
There is an interesting intersection between philanthropy and government. Philanthropy can often be an influencer for policy change or a nimble implementer of solutions, things that can often get bogged down by government process. However, when it comes to certain community services, the government is the only entity that can provide them. Think law enforcement, fire protection, public schools, and highways. Even so, philanthropy is often called upon to fill gaps or augment these services when tax funding is limited.
In Colorado, we have a funding conundrum. The U.S. News & World Report recently ranked Colorado’s economy as first among the states. Yet, despite this strong showing, we are consistently ranked low in education, health care, and fiscal stability. This is because state lawmakers’ authority to levy taxes, collect the revenue and render services has been stymied.
Between 1982 and 2000, Colorado voters passed a series of amendments to the state Constitution. Taken individually, each amendment made sense and accomplished valid aims. The 1982 Gallagher Amendment sought to limit increases in residential property taxes. The 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, capped state and local tax revenue and called for excess collections to be returned to taxpayers. It also required voter approval of any tax increases in an effort to limit the size of government. In 2000, Amendment 23 directed the state to steadily increase funding for K-12 public education.
Taken together, however, the amendments have created a knot of unintended, conflicting laws. And because these criss-crossing policies are enshrined in the Colorado Constitution, lawmakers have no power to address the points of conflict. Only voters may change the state Constitution.
Over time, the strain exerted on the state budget, not to mention the budgets of countless special districts across the state, has grown. This pressure is perhaps most visible in Colorado’s K-12 public education system, the largest single item in the state budget. Despite having one of the nation’s strongest economies, Colorado is in the lowest third among states in both per-pupil spending and teacher pay.
“We have a state government that is shrinking relative to the economy, and it’s just not sustainable,” said Reeves Brown, project manager for Building a Better Colorado (BBCO), a diverse, nonpartisan group working to raise awareness about Colorado’s constitutional conundrum.
BBCO convenes meetings of community leaders in towns and cities across the state, carefully explaining the state’s situation without pointing fingers or prescribing solutions. Brown calls the organization a “purveyor of an honest, fact-based conversation,” and he says the results of BBCO gatherings are often surprising to the participants.
An April meeting in Glenwood Springs attracted 47 civic leaders from various fields and across the political spectrum. The group reached an astonishing level of agreement on the need for changes — not outright repeal of any amendments, but specific changes to correct some of the unintended effects.
“We have unending faith in well-intentioned thought leaders across the state to agree more than they disagree and to engage in constructive dialogue,” Brown said.
Many school districts and cities have won voter approval to exempt themselves from elements of TABOR. In 2018, Colorado Mountain College won approval for two measures that helped stabilize its revenue stream by freeing the institution from certain Gallagher-imposed constraints.
“We didn’t ask for more money. What we wanted was predictability,” said Matt Gianneschi, CMC’s chief operating officer. “We tried to frame it by asking people to sustain these services that they already have in their communities.”
Part of the rationale behind CMC’s ballot questions, Gianneschi added, was to show other taxing authorities how to do it, and perhaps to inspire them. But Gianneschi admits that most rural libraries or fire departments don’t have the resources for a ballot question. That’s why, in the long term, some kind of statewide action is needed.
To learn more about Building a Better Colorado and the state’s fiscal policies, visit buildingabettercolorado.org.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.