The TABOR amendment to the Colorado Constitution, a product of the fertile, inventive and cunning mind of Douglas Bruce, has many unfortunate features. One particularly noxious section requires that any written comments received by local governments for or against a ballot issues be summarized and published in a pamphlet mailed to all registered voters prior to the election.
It is, of course, a waste of public funds. However biased, inaccurate, frivolous or stupid the comments may be, they’re all included in the summaries. The comments serve to obfuscate the issues, not clarify them.
In practice, no one bothers to comment except the designated supporters and opponents of a particular measure. For decades, Bruce has often been the sole voice in opposition, railing against every tax-raising measure with his unique blend of hyperbole, exaggeration, dubious factoids and manufactured outrage.
Proponents, by contrast, usually stick to the facts, although they understandably prefer facts that support their cause.
While serving on City Council 20 years ago, I decided to game the system. The issue: authorizing a multi-million dollar airport bond issue, to be used to construct the new terminal. I was for it – the Dougster was against it. So I filed frivolous arguments against the measure, hoping that such arguments would emphasize the essential unseriousness of arguments put forth by the opposition. One of my arguments: Better air service would delay the return of passenger rail to Colorado Springs.
The Gazette revealed my little scheme, and neither the editorial writers nor the G’s letter writers were pleased. I was delighted – especially because the entire editorial page was devoted to attacking me. The editorial, the letters to the editor, the Chuck Asay cartoon, an op-ed piece; all about the Evil Brain from City Council.
No pranks this year, but there’s still fun to be had. Here are the pro- and anti- comments on Issue 2C, the 0.62 percent sales tax proposed by Mayor John Suthers and referred to the voters by City Council, with added commentary in bold. OK means it’s reasonably truthful, OK- means it’s somewhat truth-y and W means whopper.
Summary of Written Comments FOR Ballot Issue 2C:
– The roads in Colorado Springs are terrible. An independent transportation research group found that more than 70 percent of roads are in “poor or mediocre shape.” The roads are in such bad shape that Colorado Springs drivers spend $200 more per year than the average American driver for vehicle operating costs because they drive on deteriorated roads. OK
– Colorado Springs’ voters have consistently said that getting our roads repaired is their number one priority. OK
– In Issue 2C, the Mayor and the City Council have put forward a plan to fix the roads that includes zero debt and hires no new city employees. OK
– Through a small — 0.62 percent — increase in the city sales tax for only five years we can invest in fixing our broken infrastructure. OK-. Any tax that raises $50 million annually isn’t a small tax, but I guess that’s a matter of opinion.
– All the money raised will go only to roads and the tax goes away after five years. OK
– Groceries, gas, utilities and prescription drugs are exempt from the sales tax increase. We pay enough for those essential costs and they won’t increase one penny. OK-. Such items have long been exempt from municipal sales taxes, so this isn’t anything new.
– Not only is the increase temporary, but nearly 40 percent of the cost will be paid by tourists and out-of-town travelers. OK-. Visitors pay a portion of local sales taxes, but 40 percent is at the outer limit of probability. Thirty percent is more likely.
– A great deal of the wear and tear on Colorado Springs’ roads comes from tourists traveling to destinations like Pikes Peak or the Broadmoor. That is why the Mayor structured the proposed increase so that nearly 40 cents on every dollar is paid by individuals and companies from outside Colorado Springs. W! Tourists traveling to the Broadmoor? C’mon – compared to the toll taken by commuters, delivery vehicles, semi-trucks and other daily drivers, the impact of tourist travel is very slight.
– The increase is necessary because the Mayor has proposed making major cuts in the city budget in order to resolve public safety and legal issues regarding our flood mitigation and stormwater infrastructure, and there is not enough money left in the budget to significantly impact our deteriorating roads. OK-. You’re confusing simultaneity with causality. There’s not enough money to fix the roads — that’s not necessarily a result of the Mayor’s budgetary priorities.
– The plan is structured to minimize the cost to Colorado Springs families, while maximizing our ability to fix our broken roads. Your vote on Issue 2C will help invest essential resources into fixing our crumbling roads. OK.
And here are comments against, all authored by Bruce.
The top seven reasons to oppose issue 2C this November:
– Cost. City Hall wants $250+ million in higher sales taxes. That equals the entire general fund budget. Total city revenue is $450 million yearly (=$4,000 per average family of four); that’s too much. The full cost of a $50 million tax to that family of four is $444 per year for five years (=$2,220). OK-. Not all city revenue comes from taxes, and the average figure of $4,400 per family is misleading. But Bruce is an anti-tax partisan, and it’s fair to make partisan arguments.
– Rate. Our total sales tax rate will be 8.25 percent, way above Denver. Of the 50 largest cities in America, our rank will leap from 33rd place to 17th highest. We will lose our cost-saving edge in attracting business and jobs. Do you want to live in a high-tax city? OK-. Even with an 8.25 percent combined city/county/state, city property taxes are so low that we’ll continue to be a low-tax city.
– Harm. Our fragile economy will sink if they take another $250+ million from our wallets. It will drive more customers to shop online or in the county, hurting local stores. Tourism and business relocations will decline. Seniors and the poor will suffer the most. OK-. You can easily argues the contrary, but politics is about argument.
– Waste. Shoddy road repairs mean redoing the same potholes often. The City hires bureaucrats with cushy pensions, not private contractors using competitive bids. 32 percent of budget is for administration, $19 million yearly is state gas tax rebates; use that. W! There won’t be any new hires associated with the tax — it’ll all be done with private contractors. On the other hand, Bruce can note that he’s just referring to past city practices.
– Fraud. They spend far under 0.1 percent of the budget on potholes. They ignored repairs to force a tax hike, a common scam. They plan to repave 25 percent of city road miles in 10 years. Road damage will grow; the ignored 75 percent will get much worse. 15 potholes of 2′ x 2′ is 60 square feet; they will pave 63,360 sq. ft. (one lane mile 12′ wide) to ll a 0.1 percent area for $181,000. A $250+ million tax to create “400 temporary” jobs will cost $625,000+ a job! OK-. Vintage Bruce — mix facts with factoids, draw misleading conclusions and leave your opponents tongue-tied. But all’s fair in love, war and local politics.
– Deception. The paving plan is 10 years, but the tax is only 5 years. City Hall will demand renewal and threaten misery if we refuse. To fix 10,000 potholes the first year, a $50 million tax will spend $5,000 per pothole. What’s left to fix in the next four years? City Hall says it’s for “roads” only, but they are adding sidewalks, curbs and other work. They will divert it to their $300 million downtown arena. OK- Repeat previous comment!
– Dishonesty. In 2004, voters passed a $70 million yearly RTA sales tax to “fix” roads. RTA spent over $680 million on roads, mostly in the city. It said it would add money to existing spending. The city broke its promise and diverted its taxes elsewhere. It’s called “bait and switch.” W! The “diverted” taxes were for public transportation, not roads.
– 9/8/15: Mayor admits only half this tax will go for roads. In 2014, a $40 million yearly rain tax for stormwater drainage (issue 1-B) was defeated. Voters also rejected a prior rain tax. City Hall has now “found” the money for drainage without a tax hike. They can do the same for potholes, but only if we vote “NO” on 2C. W! Road construction, as the Mayor noted, includes curbs, gutter and related infrastructure. Nice try Doug!
So whose arguments are stronger? That’s for the voters to decide. But just for the record, the airport bonds of 20 years ago passed with more than 70 percent of the vote. Somehow, I doubt whether the voters paid any attention to the pro-con arguments that the city mailed out.