Even as performative partisan politics played out on the House floor last Thursday, something subtle and encouraging was happening in committee rooms where the real work of legislating and governing happens in full public view.
Over at the Joint Budget Committee, where its six members have been wrestling with tough choices, funding for higher education has become elusive. Here is an example. During figure setting, state Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, spoke eloquently about the need to increase funding for higher education, recalling how her education at the University of Colorado as a first generation college student helped move her into the middle class.
“We don’t pull the ladder back up behind us,” she said, lamenting the lack of resources for higher education. “We need to throw down as many ladders as we can.”
State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, agreed wholeheartedly with Bird, adding that the state cannot balance its budget on the back of education, whether it’s K-12 or K-16.
“We just cannot break this system,” she said. “ We can’t have one more system get broken in this state and this is an extremely important system.”
Similarly, earlier in the day in the House Finance Committee, lawmakers wrestled with solutions to address an anomalous property value assessment conducted at the height of pandemic-related housing inflation. The result of using that snapshot-in-time for property taxes threatens to boost property tax bills in uneven and unfair ways.
Republican Rep. Lisa Frizell, of Castle Rock, who has a background in real estate assessment, filed a bill that would create a one-time exception to the requirement that properties be reassessed every two years, which would, in essence, allow the state to leapfrog over the top-of-the-market reassessment in June 2022 that is causing serious concerns about the potential for large property tax increases.
“This bill is an earnest attempt to start an important conversation that our citizens really need for us to have,” Frizell said.
The conversation about the bill was appreciative, thoughtful and constructive.
“This is a very serious proposal to address a very serious problem,” said state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, D-Lakewood.
Committee members voiced concerns that the measure did not include a plan for the revenue issues that the state and local districts would grapple with as a result. There were also concerns it wouldn’t offer targeted relief to lower-income homeowners or renters.
And even though there was not enough consensus to move the bill forward, there was a significant amount of agreement and shared imperative to find a solution in an era of Colorado politics when name-calling and filibusters are what we typically see in our politics.
We only have to go back a few months for an example in the gubernatorial campaign when GOP candidate Heidi Ganahl bombastically claimed – with precious little detail – that she planned to eliminate the state income tax and cut the gas tax in half, which would effectively eliminate 70 percent of revenue for discretionary spending. In response to a salty question from the former publisher of The Denver Post, Ganahl retorted: “A lot of people across Colorado think the government’s total bulls**t right now,” she said, blasting what she called “out of control spending.”
Fast forward a few months to General Assembly committee rooms where the spotlight is decidedly less bright and the problems and front and center for lawmakers to solve and the dialogue is far different.
In both rooms, the partisan rhetoric from the campaign trail fell quiet. The thoughtful conversation was a relief from overheated rhetoric.
Yet, the very large elephant in the room remains, as ever, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, also known as TABOR. Even in a low tax state – and Colorado is that by many measures – the state cannot use the revenue it collects to shore up important systems like higher education because the albatross known as TABOR doesn’t allow it.
It makes no difference to TABOR that the current funding proposal from Gov. Jared Polis’ office proposes $90 million less in funding than the state’s higher education institutions say they need at a bare minimum.
TABOR doesn’t care. But we should.
And it’s encouraging to see how many legislators on both sides of the aisle understand that and share concerns and are trying to work together to find solutions. It’s remarkable to hear them talk about practical needs and very real revenue shortfalls without the bluster of campaign trail rhetoric.
The constructive conversation stood in stark contrast to what is happening over on the ballot initiative track, where proposed measures are landing on a daily basis. Disingenuous, destructive and dangerous would be an apt way to describe many of the fiscal measures that have been filed thus far. One, a proposal to drastically cap individual property tax revenues, is mathematically unworkable and if successful would starve local communities of critical resources, but that matters little to its proponents. Their only goal is to blow up the train tracks and force those whose job it is to govern to clean up the mess. These proposals bear no resemblance to the productive conversations noted here that are happening at the legislature. Voters should take note.
The encouraging take away from those exchanges are that bipartisan coalitions can find common ground. Hearing from constituents, and the realities of governing have a remarkable ability to shape pragmatic and constructive policy, which is a refreshing break from the angertainment that gets clicks and headlines these days. Unfortunately, the state’s overly restrictive fiscal rules, upheld by years of bomb-throwing rhetoric, don’t allow for much room for actual problem solving. And that is a loss for Coloradans of any political stripe.
Scott Wasserman is President of Bell Policy Center, a nonprofit focused on economic mobility for all Coloradans.