The emerging conventional wisdom about the Democrats’ stunning sweep of the state House and Senate last week is that Coloradans were tired of the previous Republican majority’s focus on cultural issues and Congressional re-redistricting while the state’s budget woes reached disaster levels. If the voters hoped to force Democrats and Republican Governor Bill Owens to engage in a dialogue about how to fix the budget hole, they succeeded.
Yesterday Governor Owens said what he wouldn’t say last year — that he now embraces "de-Brucing," wonk-speak for asking the voters to eliminate part of the so-called Taxpayers Bill of Rights ("TABOR"), the law that prevents state government from spending more than a small increment of increase over the previous year’s revenue. The rest must be distributed back to the people. This results in a “one way ratchet” — very much intended by Doug Bruce, the Colorado Springs businessman who wrote the amendment back in 1992 — that forcibly shrinks the budget when state revenues decrease due to an economic downturn such as the one we have been experiencing since 2001. Owens says he is prepared to "de-Bruce" to the tune of $500 million or more as part of a plan that would also sell off the state’s anticipated revenue from the nationwide tobacco settlement, which he anticipates would generate another $800-900 million, and increase the state budget by 3.5%.
As an aside, this proposal may show that Owens is rethinking his much-rumored plans to run for President in 2008. In a contested Republican primary, anything that could be portrayed (fairly or not) as a half-billion dollar tax increase could be fatal to Owens’ hopes.
Democrats have not rejected Owens’ proposals, although many are cool to the tobacco settlement securitization idea. Joint Budget Committee member Rep. Tom Plant of Nederland proposed yesterday that the $300 million college voucher plan passed last year be reclassified under TABOR as a return of excess funds to the taxpayers, which would allow the state to retain that much additional tax money for budget purposes without formal "de-Brucing." The legality of this plan would certainly be challenged. But the fact that both sides are rolling out new state budget ideas means Colorado voters who wanted the state government to solve its budget problems are likely to get what they wanted.