February 13 2009, 3:10 PM
Sometimes the most important issue legislators have to tackle is also the most complicated one. That may well turn out to be the case this year in Colorado, as House and Senate members are set to consider repealing the Arveschoug-Bird limits on state spending. The issue gets very technical very quickly, but the stakes are clear: Democrats say keeping the limits will have potentially devastating effects on funding for K-12 education, corrections, and health care, among other programs. Many Republicans counter that ending the limits would mark another nail in the coffin for the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. The limits, named for the two legislators who sponsored the legislation that created them in 1991, keeps spending increases for the state's general fund--which is where most state operating expenses are paid from--to 6 percent. Any state income beyond that must go toward roads and construction. Here's the problem with that: With the economy tanking and state revenues projected to drop several hundred million dollars this year, the state is talking about big budget cuts in K-12 education, corrections, and health care, among others. The fear is that if and when the recession ends and revenues increase again, the limits would prevent legislators from simply restoring funding to these areas to pre-recession levels. Instead, funding would have to be upped incrementally, meaning it could take years to return funding in, say, K-12 education, to 2008 levels--even if the money is there. For example, if state general-fund spending last year was $120, but fell to $100 this year, legislators would only be able to raise funding next year to $106, then $112.36 the following year. State Senator John Morse will likely introduce legislation next week to repeal Arveschoug-Bird. Several House members--including Republican state Representative Don Marostica--are considering similar legislation in their chamber. But there's another issue: Would it be constitutional for the legislature to repeal the limits? TABOR requires any spending limit to be approved by voters in a referendum. But is Arveschoug-Bird a spending limit? Many Republicans say yes. But last year, Jean Dobofsky, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice, wrote in a legal opinion that it was not. CU President Bruce Benson, a former Republican Party chair, says it's fine with him if Arveschoug-Bird is scrapped. "There are people saying, 'Well and good. Let's just pass something and get rid of it.' "You know what's gonna happen: That's gonna go to court, and then it's eventually going to go to the Supreme Court," he says. "And that's fine--go ahead and put a ruling on it."