John Colson: Colorado should dump Gallagher Amendment and face consequences

John Colson
Hit & Run

It sure seems that our ballots in Colorado get more intricate, delicate and incomprehensible every election year.

One instance of this is Amendment B on this year’s ballot, put forward by the state legislature, which would repeal portions of the so-called Gallagher Amendment (let’s just call it Gallagher for simplicity’s sake) passed by state voters back in 1982.

Gallagher, for those who might feel confused about it, lays out the mechanisms by which the state keeps residential and commercial property taxes in a certain numerical dance year after year, with residential property owners paying about 45% of the state’s total annual property-tax revenue (minus a few exceptions, such as the oil and gas industry) while commercial property owners pay the other 55%.

That was the property-tax ratio back then, when residential property made up about 45% of overall private property holdings, and Gallagher proposed to freeze the ratio in place forever.

But since then, residential property ownership has surged to perhaps 80% of all private property held in the state. And because Gallagher held the state’s tax revenue to the 45-55 ratio, one result of this bit of bad law has been the decline of residential property-tax rates by a whopping 75% since 1982, according to an analysis by the Building A Better Colorado (BABC) organization (www.buildinga, which has forced taxing entities to get pretty creative every year to keep the ratio in effect and still collect enough revenue for operations.

The net effect of all this, according to the BABC and one of our own local taxing districts, the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District (CRFPD), has been able to slash the residential property tax rate to about 7.1%, according to most estimates. And that tax-rate could drop to 5.1% in the coming year if Gallagher stays put, which the CRFPD has estimated will cut the fire district’s property tax revenue (its main source of income) by more than $768,000 in 2022.

The state government has done a pretty murky job of getting out the news on Amendment B, and many voters are confused by the intricacies of the proposition.

I’ve wrestled with this one for some time, and at one point I was convinced I should vote against it, due mostly to my deep concerns about what is known as “the law of unintended consequences” where taxation issues are concerned.

In going over the materials I’ve been able to find, I came up with a vague sense that the legislature had not thought this one completely through, and I felt queasy about injecting yet another potentially disastrous bit of law into our state constitution.

I worried not only about the wording of the amendment, but also about the fact that the legislature did not come up with a replacement for Gallagher, meaning we could be facing an undefined period of uncertainty about our state’s property-tax structure.

In the end, though, after speaking with a number of locals whose opinions I trust, I underwent an about face, of sorts.

It appears all but certain that holding onto Gallagher will mean fiscal ruin or a vast reduction of services for any number of small, rural special districts, such as the CRFPD. In addition, Amendment B is seen as an emergency measure for dealing with a $3 billion state-revenue shortfall caused by the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So, given all that, I believe we must dump Gallagher and face the consequences.

Back in 2005, the state’s voters wiped out one of the worst aspects of another piece of horrible law — the “ratchet-down” effect of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights or TABOR — which was strangling government at all levels in the state, as it was intended to do. There are other, less horrific but still problematic provisions in TABOR, and I believe we should repeal that law entirely once we have done away with Gallagher.

One other ballot issue, Prop. 113, also deserves voter support, as it would confirm Colorado’s commitment to align itself with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact that currently has been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which together control 196 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to elect a president. The Colorado legislature signed our state up for the Compact last year, but a coalition of opponents found enough petition signers to put the matter to the voters directly.

The compact is designed to avoid the situation where a presidential candidate may lose the popular vote but win the election due to the peculiar artifice of the Electoral College, as has happened recently in presidential contests in 2000 and 2016.

The Electoral College is an anachronism, created out of concerns among the founding fathers of the United States that small states with lower populations need a boost to overcome the influence of large urban areas in national politics.

But recently the system has been criticized for giving undue influence to rural, smaller state populations, which tend to be more conservative socially and politically, and the Interstate Compact was conceived as a way of getting around that imbalance without going through what would certainly be a messy fight over a constitutional amendment to eliminate the College.

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