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Budget, elections reforms suggested to improve Colorado

Coalition looks at conflicts from TABOR
The Building a Better Colorado coalition is seeking to address the ease with which Colorado’s constitution is amended, decreased participation in elections systems and an “imbalance” between citizens’ expectations of government services and the ability to meet desires.

DENVER – A coalition aimed at examining reforms to budget and elections processes in Colorado identified restructuring a hospital fee and strengthening rules governing citizens initiatives as solutions to ease conflicts and challenges facing the state.

The Building a Better Colorado coalition – comprised largely of civic and business leaders – sought to address the ease with which Colorado’s constitution is amended, decreased participation in elections systems and an “imbalance” between citizens’ expectations of government services and the ability to meet desires.

The recommendations could be placed before voters to decide next year.

Critics have labeled the coalition another statewide tour to gather support to raise taxes by eliminating protections under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

But in a letter Monday with the release of Building a Better Colorado’s mid-term report – which was made available on Wednesday – project director Reeves Brown, the former executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, said the goal of the effort is not to dictate solutions.

“Our goal is to listen to people from all corners of Colorado in hopes of coming up with consensus solutions that could be placed on the ballot for voters to make a final determination next fall,” Brown said.

Since early September, the coalition met with nearly 1,500 civic leaders and concerned citizens during 17 community summits throughout Colorado, including one in Durango.

“Doing the right thing is more important than doing the easy thing,” said Dan Ritchie, chairman of Building a Better Colorado, a Republican and former chancellor of the University of Denver.

At its mid-term, the coalition believes “maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.”

An idea that the coalition says is popular would restructure a fee paid by hospital providers to exempt it from TABOR. The fund is used to force a higher federal match on Medicaid expenses.

The proposal has been floated by Gov. John Hickenlooper as a means to fix the state’s “fiscal thicket,” in which government spending faces a TABOR cap on how much money the state budget can grow each year. When the cap is hit, taxpayers are owed a refund. TABOR also requires a vote of the people before raising taxes.

The proposal calls for restructuring the hospital provider fee so the cash would not be part of the general fund and not count as revenue subject to refunds under TABOR, thereby allowing lawmakers to spend the money on things such as schools and transportation.

Strong economic conditions in Colorado will result in taxpayer refunds, forcing budget writers to account for $289 million in rebates for the upcoming budget. To deal with the spending cap, budget writers are examining $373 million in balancing cuts.

Jon Caldara, president of the right-leaning Independence Institute, worries that the true intent of Building a Better Colorado is a repeal of TABOR so that lawmakers can spend without taxpayer oversight. Previous statewide coalitions – with similar reform goals in mind – have also taken a look at TABOR reforms.

“It’s the ‘destroy TABOR coalition,’” Caldara said. “Now that we’re getting to a point where it’s time for taxpayers to get refunds, or for the government to do the unthinkable and simply use TABOR to ask if they want to keep the excess, it’s time to destroy TABOR.”

Part of the conflicts that the state faces has had to do with the ease in which the state constitution can be amended, currently requiring only 98,492 signatures to make the ballot, and a simple majority to pass.

The coalition floated the idea of requiring a two-thirds vote to adopt future constitutional amendments, while still allowing a simple majority for fixes to amendments that were previously adopted.

Another idea includes requiring petition signatures from different geographic areas of the state for proposed constitutional amendments. The coalition also listed the idea of requiring more signatures for initiated amendments compared to initiated statutes.

Opponents of a more stringent initiative process say the reforms would limit the voice of the people to curb government.

“The initiative process is the safety valve for runaway government,” Caldara said. “There’s no way the Legislature would place these limits upon themselves. What they’re looking for is for the Legislature to have unchecked power.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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