DENVER -- This autumn's angriest political controversy is reaching a roiling boil in this state. Conservatives, especially, are arguing, with their characteristic internecine fury, about whether a change in fiscal facts should cause Colorado to change its mind about a rule restricting government spending. Come November, there will be a referendum on a temporary relaxation of the state's ``taxpayer bill of rights'' -- Tabor.
Adopted by referendum in 1992, it is the nation's most stringent limit on a state legislature's freedom to tax and spend. It says that spending in a given year cannot increase faster than population growth plus inflation -- if both are 2 percent, spending can increase only 4 percent. Furthermore, revenue exceeding permissible spending must be rebated to taxpayers, who also must approve any tax increase.
Tabor has been spectacularly successful. Per capita spending has increased slower than in almost all other states, and Colorado ranks 50th in state taxes collected per $1,000 of personal income. Even though -- actually, because -- Gov. Bill Owens has cut taxes 41 times, revenues have surged, and in six of the last nine years taxpayers have received refunds, a total of $3.2 billion, about $3,000 per household.
But two events have given Tabor an unexpectedly ferocious bite. These events have revealed an unanticipated wrinkle in Tabor's mechanism.
The first came in 2000, when Colorado voters, in an episode of cognitive dissonance encouraged by the teachers unions and the rest of the public education lobby, passed an initiative discordant with Tabor. It requires spending on education in grades K through 12 to grow significantly faster than overall spending. This, combined with the growth of federally mandated Medicaid spending, means not only that the portion of the budget devoted to elementary and secondary education must steadily grow relative to the rest of the budget, but also that all spending cuts must come from less than one-third of the state's budget -- basically, from higher education, corrections and human services. Those who favor leaving Tabor as it is and cutting $300 million to $400 million from the $2 billion of controllable spending are notably reticent about what they would cut.