Saturday, May 15, 2004
State Senate President John Andrews' comments on a possible special session are emblematic of the partisan political stubbornness that brought the legislative session to an end without a plan to address the state's budget woes.
Andrews, a Republican from Centennial, said Thursday that he saw no reason for a special session. "The people already spoke on this issue through the legislative process in the regular session, and the message I got was 'don't raise taxes,'" Andrews said.
Andrews is wrong. The issue isn't raising taxes. The issue is fixing a state budget and simultaneously avoiding a future fiscal crisis. That was the greatest challenge and the top priority facing Andrews and his fellow lawmakers entering the 2004 legislative session. They failed to get the job done. They should go back until it is complete.
The state's fiscal problems can be traced to two constitutional amendments -- the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23. The amendments work at odds with each other, particularly in times of economic recession. No one knows that better than the members of the General Assembly, who have spent the better part of the past two years cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget.
TABOR, approved by voters in 1992, sets limits on the amount of revenue the state can raise and spend. It has been effective in protecting taxpayers from needless tax increases and in ensuring lawmakers are fiscally prudent with tax dollars. But TABOR has a flaw -- the so-called "ratchet effect" that forces the state to permanently reduce tax revenues once there has been a loss in revenue because of an economic downturn. The ratchet effect keeps state revenues at artificial lows once the economy recovers.
Amendment 23 was approved in 2000. Like TABOR, it is popular with voters because it requires the state to increase K-12 education spending by inflation plus 1 percent each year. But in an economic downturn, the state, whose revenues are limited by TABOR, is forced to make greater cuts in other services to meet the demands of Amendment 23.
Though there were several proposals late in the session, they all died amid partisan squabbling, mostly over how much to revise TABOR.
Last week, key lawmakers from both parties began working on a compromise they hope will lead to a special session and, ultimately, a proposal that could go on the November ballot. We would agree with State Sen. Jack Taylor that the plan must deal with both amendments fairly and equitably. The plan must remove TABOR's ratchet effect and ease the requirements of Amendment 23 in times of a recession.
Lawmakers have to see the wisdom in such a compromise. Good politicians advocate for their positions but also understand when the time comes to find common ground and take a leadership role in what seems to be an unsolvable problem. That time is now.
The alternative is risky. If there is no special session, the likely scenario is a citizen initiative for the November ballot. Remember, TABOR and Amendment 23 were citizen initiatives that voters embraced despite their inherent conflicts.
Lawmakers understand those conflicts better than anyone, and they are in the best position to resolve them. It's time for them to go back to work to get it done.