Guest commentary: Another Colorado Comeback?
As Colorado begins to open back up, we know we have a big economic hole to dig out of. Unemployment claims are over 420,000, businesses have shuttered, and a lot of Coloradans have seen their hours and/or pay cut. This hit to the private sector means that our state budget will also likely see a $3 billion dip in revenue.
The coronavirus was sudden and unexpected, but we’ve seen tough budget times before. After the last recession, Colorado bounced back quicker and better than any other state. Our economy became #1 in the country, leading to record high revenue and making us No. 2 nationally in the percentage of growth of our state budget.
While technology, tourism and manufacturing all increased over the past decade, a large portion of our economic growth came from oil and gas development. We also didn’t raise tax rates. Even though Gov. John Hickenlooper championed several tax hikes over his tenure, voters shot them all down on the ballot. Thanks to our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), Colorado voters have ensured our state remains an economically attractive place to live and work.
The politicians attacking TABOR, saying it makes it harder to save money, aren’t telling the truth. These are the same people who supported Proposition CC in 2019, which would have taken TABOR refund money, forever, without a single dollar going to savings. The idea of saving money for the next recession isn’t a new debate. In fact, back in 2006, Cory Gardner proposed a rainy-day fund as a state legislator — but the Democrats opposed it.
As we face this current challenge, the policies we choose now will determine how strong our economic comeback will be. The temptation for politicians is to look for short-term revenue fixes that will only end up harming our economy more in the long run.
We can’t raise tax rates on individuals and businesses (or go around TABOR with large fees) and expect our economy to bounce back. We can’t increase property taxes, force businesses to spend an extra $1 billion on family leave, or hurt our hospitals with a “public option,” — and expect our state to be as resilient as it has been. And politicians certainly can’t continue to go after the oil and gas and agriculture sectors and expect us to keep our No. 1 economic rating.
The good news is that we have the best state and the best people in the country. If government doesn’t get in the way, our farmers can continue to help feed the country, our oil and gas workers can help power our way of life, and our technology companies can help push our economy forward. And as our restaurant, retail and tourism businesses work their way back, innovation will be key. I know Coloradans will thrive, if given the chance.
We know that the only way that state revenue will bounce back is by getting our economy rolling again. But in the meantime, legislators should prioritize the people who need it the most when making budget decisions. They shouldn’t cut health care for low-income children, or slash mental health services. Instead, they should focus on reforming our overgrown state bureaucracy.
For instance, our K-12 and higher education budgets shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of teachers and families. Only 56% of the money we spend in our K-12 system even gets to classrooms. In both K-12 and higher education, the focus should be on addressing the runaway administrative costs.
While there’s no doubt we have tough days ahead, one thing is certain: we will beat this virus. Our country invented the polio vaccine, developed the first general anesthetic, and completed the first organ transplant. We will win this health care fight. And once we do, it will be up to us to win the economic fight, too.
Michael Fields is the executive director of Colorado Rising Action, which is a 501(c)(4) organization.
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