Billion reasons to distrust Colo. Dems

Four years ago, Colorado voters decided to trust Democrats with complete control of state government - the governor's mansion and large majorities in the legislature. As voters consider their choices for 2010, they might be surprised by how little governing Democrats have trusted voters in those four years.

Since 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter and the Democrat legislature have increased property taxes by more than $160 million a year, raised vehicle license "fees" by $250 million, instituted new hospital patient "fees" that will cost $600 million, and imposed some $180 million in new sales and use taxes.

All told, Ritter and the legislature have managed to increase the cost of taxes and fees by $1.19 billion and, miraculously, not once triggered Colorado's constitutional requirement that taxes can be raised only by a vote of the people.

In 2007, Democrats changed the school finance act to force most school districts to collect more property tax revenues, thereby reducing what the state spends on K-12 education. Previously, even many Democrats acknowledged that such a change must be presented to the voters.

This time, however, Democrats commandeered the political will to pass such a law and constructed a legal argument which, although rejected by a lower court, ultimately prevailed in the Colorado Supreme Court. As a result, Coloradans will pay an extra $160 million for property taxes this year alone - and more than $1 billion over six years.

Thus emboldened, the 2009 legislature smashed another of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights' (TABOR) prohibitions by eliminating the general fund spending limit without a public vote. Although Colorado Revised Statutes specifically referred to this provision as a "limitation" on the general fund, Democrats and their attorneys argued that it was instead an "allocation strategy" and, therefore, not subject to TABOR's prohibition against weakening spending limits without a public vote.

In its ruling on the 2007 property tax hike, the supreme court also signaled lawmakers that other taxes could be raised, under the guise of eliminating tax exemptions, so long as they didn't exceed TABOR revenue limit. To Democrats, suddenly everything that wasn't already taxed was merely "exempted" and a target to be taxed. So in the middle of a recession, they raised taxes on Colorado families and businesses by $180 million over two years.

However, the greatest deception is the onslaught of taxes masquerading as fees. Generally, taxes - which, according to the constitution, can't be raised without voter approval - are collected broadly and can be spent for any purpose. Fees, however, were generally understood to cover the cost of a regulatory function or of administration (e.g., licensing or registration) for which the fee is assessed.

Democrats made no pretense that the largest of their fee increases merely cover administrative expenses. Ritter suggested that the primary criterion necessary for a tax to be considered a fee is a "direct relationship" between the payer of the fee and a government activity funded by the fee.

Under this construction, it seems obvious that a new "fee" on gasoline could be imposed without a public vote so long as revenues are dedicated exclusively to highway construction or repair.

The most egregious fee - a $600 million tax on hospital services - is assessed on "outpatient and inpatient services" and ultimately paid by patients or their insurers, who receive no direct benefit in return. Ironically, Democrats dubbed this legislation, the "Health Care Affordability Act."

Together these two fees when fully implemented are projected to raise a combined $850 million a year. With fees of this magnitude, voters may never again be asked to approve a genuine tax.

Democrat candidate for governor John Hickenlooper recently said, "I think if you put issues before the public, they'll decide if it's a worthwhile investment."

That's not the way Democrats have governed for the past four years. So why should Colorado voters trust Democrats when Democrats clearly don't trust voters?

Imagine a better legislature

While others play the personality game of who succeeds Bill Ritter, let’s talk policy. Imagine Colorado making itself so attractive to employers that we lead all 50 states in creating new jobs, instead of lagging in 20th place as we did in the decade past (our second-worst showing since 1890). Imagine Colorado becoming a mecca for affordable health care by letting insurers from across the country compete on price and quality in our state marketplace. Imagine forging out as the nation’s futuristic energy leader, the state that builds safe nuclear plants for clean electricity powering homes, businesses, and vehicles. Imagine our schools putting kids’ best interests ahead of union demands with the most charter-friendly policies in America, slashing red tape to empower learning performance. Imagine our university system paying students a 25% dividend on their time and tuition by innovating the three-year college degree.

Imagine a legislature so tough-minded that it would solicit private investors for Colorado’s transportation infrastructure, Indiana-style; clean up the PERA retirement system’s governance to exclude self-serving insiders; impeach the state’s chief justice for rewriting our constitution; and launch an all-out investigation of radical Islam’s influence here.

And imagine a state government so honest that it no longer grabs a 15-month, zero-interest loan from your paycheck in the form of tax withholding. Rather you keep your own money for your own use until the revenue deadline in April each year.

Such imagineering, as the Disney people call it, is great for mind expansion. But don’t expect any of these visions to be realized in legislation when the Colorado General Assembly convenes this week. Majority Democrats, led by House Speaker Terrance Carroll and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, envision our future differently – and for now, citizens have put them in charge.

For now. The ruling party’s legislative work from January to May is their final exam. In November the voters will file a report card on every House member and half the Senate. Some of us hope all the Democrats flunk. To hasten that, Republicans should use the 2010 session to prove that “out of power” does not mean out of ideas.

Snow may be scarce in the mountains, but at the Capitol a blizzard of bills is flying. During these 120 days nearly a thousand proposals will surface. Some will tackle the budget deficit. Others will push hot buttons, from legal pot to illegal aliens. We’ll hear about such bedroom questions as the gun in the nightstand or who shares a pillow. So will they also find time to debate the big-picture policy issues?

Ten are imagined on my list above. GOP legislators, outnumbered in both chambers, can’t pass these good ideas into law. They can't even get many of them to a floor vote where Dems are put on record. But they can certainly propose them as bills, publicize and advocate for them, laying down a marker for the upcoming campaign.

Rep. Spencer Swalm (R-Centennial) is doing just that with his proposal to end mandatory withholding of state income tax, a transparency move to highlight the ever-growing cost of government. “When a taxpayer has to sit down and write a check,” says Swalm, “it wonderfully focuses the mind.”

Businesses, for that matter, shouldn’t pay income tax at all – since they merely pass it along to consumers or squeeze it out of employee payrolls. Spurring an employment boom by axing that tax was one of my recommendations to gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis in a column last month. His legislative allies should call the Dems’ bluff on job creation with a bill.

By helping Coloradans imagine a better legislature in 2010, Republicans can help themselves back to the majority in 2011. “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,” sang that old political balladeer, Goethe.

GOP senators: Dems are fiscally AWOL

(Press Release, Dec. 18) According to Legislative Council, which presented its fourth quarter revenue forecast to the Joint Budget Committee today, Colorado is still facing a $600 million shortfall, a total of $631 million shortfall when including the increase in Medicaid caseload. Despite reports that the recession is over, the sobering news for the current budget year has Republicans calling on Gov. Bill Ritter and majority Democrats to step up and show some true fiscal leadership. Just last week Ritter painted a cheerful picture of the budget's future, telling reporters he was hopeful there wouldn't be another shortfall or a need for more cuts. Republicans believed Ritter's comments were naïve and overly optimistic. Ritter has consistently underestimated the budget shortfall beginning in the Fall of 2008 when his office projected the state's budget would actually grow, even in the midst of a historic collapse of the nation's financial markets.

“All the happy talk we've been hearing doesn't obscure that our budget situation continues to deteriorate,” said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. “So I ask the question again: when will the Governor stop hiring new employees, when will the Democratic monopoly in the Capitol implement a serious plan to consolidate departments, agencies boards and commissions, when will they implement meaningful and permanent spending reductions rather than relying overwhelmingly on one time gimmicks and federal bailouts, and when will real scrutiny be applied to the battery of new programs created since the Democrats gained unfettered power in 2006?”

Over the past few months, Ritter and fellow Democrats have offered a laundry list of band aids to address Colorado's budget crisis. Of Ritter's proposed fixes, 82 percent are one time solutions, such as federal bailout dollars, cash fund transfers, accounting gimmicks and money raided from state trust funds. This will push the majority of the shortfall, which is anticipated to be $1.5 billion, into the 2010-11 fiscal year.

“How many different ways can we implore the governor and ruling democrats to take our advice and slim the bureaucracy, get off the backs of people trying to create real jobs, and eliminate wasteful spending programs so that our government can get out of the rudderless ship mode it's in?" asked Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton.

Ritter has also proposed closing part of the budget gap with a host of tax and fee increases. “We've been warning Democrats for years to curb their tax and spend approach to government. Ritter still doesn't get that we need to live within our means and stop pounding the people for more dollars while families across Colorado are still struggling to make ends meat,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Loveland.

Doing the right thing in office

What happens when ethics and politics collide? I did a quick online interview about this with Kelley Harp, one of my key staffers from Senate President days (2003-2005), for a graduate course he's taking. With more time, I would have put more detail and polish into my answers; but sometimes the spontaneous reply is the truest. Here's how it went: KH: What did you see as the biggest ethical dilemma in general while serving in the legislature? Was this a result of "the system?" The structure? Something else?

JA: Balancing principle and practicality, a dilemma heightened by the short time-horizon seemingly (but not really) forced up public officials by the legislative and elections calendar.

KH: How did you satisfy this paradox -- going in line with party to keep leadership/the caucus and "the base" happy vs. going in line with your constitutents even if you disagreed vs. voting your own conscience. (I realize that these do not always conflict, but when they did, how did you approach the situation?)

JA: I was a strong party man because of my conviction that parties are the best way to advance policy goals while providing democratic accountability to the citizens. I honestly gave little weight to constituent views since I hold to the Edmund Burke definition of an elected legislator's proper role - more that of an agent, doing as he judges best for the public interest, rather than a delegate who acts under instruction of his voters. As for voting my conscience, that was the ideal standard, but always tempered by the prudential considerations of #1 above - I tried to be on guard against "conscience" as a synonym for self-willed positions out of touch with realities of statesmanship.

KH: Was there a situation where you had to break one ethical principle to satisfy another? (For example, at the federal level, sending troops into harm's way knowing some will die on both sides, but preserving the safety of the nation. I couldn't think off the top of my head of a similar state situation like this that arose during my time there. I'm sure there were many.) And if so, how did you handle?

JA: Countless instances of having to choose between bad and less-bad options with no truly good option in view, but I didn't see those as matters of principle in light of #1 and #2 above.

KH: What do you think needs to change in order to minimize ethical problems in the legislature? (e.g. term limits, elimination of parties, publicly-funded campaigns, etc.)

JA: More fidelity to the constitution, more exercise of recall and impeachment powers already existing in law, and above all, reduction of government's functions back toward their intended constitutional limitations - since the greatest driver of corruption is the amassing of too much power and plunder in government's hands, creating huge temptation to gain control of those levers by fair or foul. Parties are vital as a check on power. So is non-government funding of elections. Term limits are an imperfect, but for the time being necessary, check on power as well.

KH: Did serving in leadership present any unique ethical dilemmas?

JA: It only heightened the tradeoffs and double-bind situations discussed above, resulting in daily decisions being skewed toward practicality. I would ask myself each evening, only half in jest, "How much of my soul did Iose today?" But I never regretted being in leadership, for on balance it have me a lot more opportunity to advance my principles than I would have had otherwise. On the other hand, in writing a memoir recently, I had to conclude the long-horizon strategic approach (mentioned in #1) received less of my effort as Senate President than it could and should have.

Sharf running again in HD-6

Editor: Joshua Sharf, who blogs for us as well as on his own at View from a Height, and who has long helped me on radio, made it official last week: He will take another run next year at the east Denver seat in Colorado's House that eluded him last year when Democrat Lois Court prevailed after Sharf had bested Rima Barakat Sinclair in the GOP primary. Here's his email announcement from today: On Thursday, October 15, I announced my candidacy for State House District 6.

I'm running because I know that Colorado can do better than we have been, and that our district's representation in the State House of Representatives needs to be a part of that improvement.

House District 6 is a relatively prosperous district. But even past success isn't enough to guarantee the future. Coloradoans are worried about losing control over their futures, futures which they have worked hard to build. We can work to give them back that control.

Colorado has the resources – most importantly, our people – that can lead us back out. We need to unleash those resources to their full potential.

I hope you'll be able to join me as I walk the district, knock on doors, and discuss how to get the state moving in the right direction again. Please visit my website at sharfcolorado.com for more information.

The work ahead won't be easy, but together, we can succeed, both as a campaign and more importantly, as a state.

See you on the trail, JOSHUA SHARF