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Polis’ name isn’t on TABOR refund checks, but it will be on a letter accompanying them

$750 and $1,500 payments come from tax revenues collected in excess of spending caps
Gov. Jared Polis speaks before signing an abortion rights bill into law on April 4 in Denver. The bill, following the longest House debate in state history, states that pregnant individuals have the right to give birth or have an abortion. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)

A letter from Gov. Jared Polis will accompany Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refund checks that are starting to be sent to Coloradans this week in the latest Democratic move around the money that’s sure to stoke more Republican allegations of political opportunism heading into the November election.

In the letter, Polis writes “it is a true pleasure to send you this enclosed ‘Colorado Cashback’ refund check,” using a tagline the governor and Democrats have used to rebrand the TABOR refunds.

“At a time when inflation is causing increases in the cost of everyday items, we are committed to getting this money to you as quickly as possible,” the letter adds.

The refund checks, $750 for single tax filers and $1,500 for joint filers, are a result of tax revenues collected by the state in excess of the TABOR cap on government growth and spending. The cap is calculated based on the rate of inflation and the rate of population growth.

The excess was more than $3 billion in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ended June 30. Money is also being refunded to taxpayers this year through an income tax rate reduction – 4.5% instead of 4.55% – and through a property tax break for seniors and veterans.

The letter from Polis, who is running for reelection this year, attempts to explain why taxpayers are getting the refund.

The gold-covered dome on the state Capitol. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

“This refund is being paid to you because you are a Colorado resident taxpayer,” it says. “Colorado law limits how much the state can spend each year, and thanks to Colorado’s strong economic growth and our successful work to close special interest tax loopholes, we are able to put even more of your hard-earned money back in your pocket, and we’re doing it well ahead of schedule.”

Heidi Ganahl, Polis’ Republican opponent in November, accused the governor of using state money to further his campaign. She said Republicans have filed a campaign finance complaint.

“Using taxpayer dollars for a very expensive campaign ploy is unacceptable,” she said in a written statement.

Sending out TABOR refund checks will cost Colorado $2.7 million, including $1.7 million in postal costs, according to Axios.

TABOR, a constitutional amendment, was championed by Republicans and approved by Colorado voters in 1992. Democrats, including Polis, have been trying to unwind it pretty much ever since.

One of the latest efforts to chip away at TABOR came in 2019, when Polis and Democrats in the Legislature placed Proposition CC on the ballot, which would have let the state keep revenue collected above the TABOR cap in perpetuity.

Proposition CC was soundly rejected by voters. Had it passed, there wouldn’t have been automatic refunds this year.

“We should celebrate this money going back to Coloradans because everyone is feeling the pinch of high inflation (and) high gas prices,” Michael Fields, a conservative fiscal activist and fierce defender of TABOR, said in a written statement. “But we should be honest about the fact that conservatives have defended TABOR and liberals have attacked it.”

TABOR refund checks would have been sent to Coloradans regardless of legislative action this year. But Democrats in the Capitol changed the refund mechanism for one year to make the refunds flat rather than based on the income-tiered mechanism that’s on the books. They are also being sent out months in advance.

Without the change, adopted through the passage of Senate Bill 233, the refunds would have been tied to six income tiers in which higher earners get larger refunds. The money also wouldn’t have arrived until spring 2023.

A second round of tax refund checks are also expected to be sent out to Coloradans in April under the tiered refund mechanism to account for TABOR cap excess that wasn’t refunded through the flat-rate checks. Those refunds are expected to range from about $100 for people who earned less than $47,000 in 2021 to about $350 for those who earned more than $265,000.

Polis, in a statement to The Colorado Sun, defended his decision to send a letter explaining the refunds checks.

“We are focused on ensuring that people understand why they are receiving immediate relief in the form of $750 or $1500 checks and that they don’t throw it away or treat it as spam,” Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor, said in a written statement.

The statement didn’t explain why the letter had to come, specifically, from the governor instead of someone in his administration.

Colorado Public Radio was first to report that a letter from Polis will accompany the refund checks. In an interview with CPR’s Colorado Matters, Polis brushed off allegations of political opportunism as cynicism.

“It just explains the basics of why people are getting the check,” the governor said of his letter.

The checks are signed by Democratic Treasurer Dave Young, who is also running for reelection in November, but his signature is not very legible.

Polis and Democratic state lawmakers on Wednesday held their third news conference since April to celebrate the refund checks.

Asked at the news conference about his views on TABOR, Polis said he is in the “mend it, don’t end it camp,” and that he likes how it requires voter approval for tax increases. He said the way in which the cap is calculated, however, should be changed since it’s calculated using lagging inflation rates.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference about TABOR refund checks on Wednesday. It was the third such news conference hosted by Polis and Democrats in the Legislature this year. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun)

Coloradans who filed their state tax returns by June 30 should receive a refund check in the next few weeks. Late filers can expect their checks to arrive next spring.

For more information about the refunds, visit tax.colorado.gov/cash-back or call (303) 951-4996. The refunds are available to all people who file tax returns, even those who did not have reportable income in 2021.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.