Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Colorado’s Constitutional Conundrum

In a post last week, I pointed out the sad irony of those of us trying to provide services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the state of Colorado: irrespective of how the economy is doing, the rates for providers always seem to get cut. I left you with the promise to let you know why – and that’s what this post is all about.

A simple overview came to me a couple of weeks ago from our expert in government affairs:

While the economy in Colorado has rebounded there are large cuts to many state departments and services in the Executive budget request. A combination of conflicting constitutional budget amendments, Federal requirements, and the anticipated TABOR refund have caused significant budget pressures and we are now at a crossroads in Colorado. 

Let’s go a little deeper into that topic.

I’ll start with TABOR. In 1992, the voters of Colorado approved a measure which amended Article X of the Colorado Constitution that restricts revenues for all levels of government (state, local, and schools). Under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), state and local governments cannot raise tax rates without voter approval and cannot spend revenues collected under existing tax rates without voter approval if revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth. Revenue in excess of the TABOR limit, commonly referred to as the "TABOR surplus", must be refunded to taxpayers, unless voters approve a revenue change as an offset in a referendum.

By all accounts, TABOR is the most restrictive tax and expenditure limit in the country, making budgeting and changing budget priorities in Colorado an extremely difficult task for lawmakers. So even legislators friendly to the needs of people with I/DD don’t have many options when it comes to provider rates.

But TABOR is only part of the issue. Now let’s talk about Colorado’s Amendment 23. In 2000, voters approved Amendment 23, a constitutional amendment intended to guarantee annual increases in funding for public elementary and secondary education. However, during the Great Recession, the required increases in funding were set aside by the General Assembly based on an interpretation of Amendment 23 that limited required increases to just a portion of per pupil funding (base per pupil and categorical funding) allowing the creation of a budget reduction tool referred to as the Negative Factor.

And here’s another constitutionally based challenge to our state’s budgeting process: the Gallagher Amendment. A 1982 constitutional provision, the Gallagher Amendment has weakened the property tax base of school districts and other local governments and has forced the state to pay a larger portion of the total bill for educating children. That, in turn, has reduced money available for other areas of the state budget, such as human services, Medicaid, etc.

So what’s the deal? I can’t help thinking that Colorado voters are unintentionally (at least somewhat) engaging in self-abuse. We have one of the longest constitutions in the country. And new amendments often seem to work in opposition to others. As this thoughtful editorial from the Denver Post points out:

As a proposed amendment is developed and then brought to the ballot, there is no process for relating the measure to existing provisions already contained in the constitution. The result is a document characterized by internal conflicts and unintended consequences. For example, it is not likely that supporters of constitutional Amendment 23 intended that additional funding for K-12 education should come at the expense of higher education. However, that's essentially what happened when Amendment 23, the TABOR amendment and an economic downturn came together. 

I think the situation here is one where voters have said to our politicians, in a loud and clear voice, “We don’t trust you.” When you look at politics these days, that sentiment is understandable. Unfortunately, that lack of trust, and our collective exercise in self-abuse, has dug our state in to a massive budget hole. The hole is there when the economy’s bad, and the hole is there when the economy’s good.

I question whether the current state leadership has the skills or capability to bring us out of the hole. Instead, we just go deeper into it. The result is an inability to find extra funds for many of our state’s pressing needs, including services for people with I/DD.

There may be a way to pull ourselves, at least partially, out of the hole, however. I’ll describe that option on this blog in a couple of weeks.

Then again, what do I know?

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