Denver seeks too much TABOR flexibility with taxpayer money

By | August 3rd, 2012

Denver City Council is considering a proposal by Mayor Michael Hancock that would ask taxpayers to permanently “De-Bruce” the city’s residential property tax. Currently, Denver is required to return property tax revenue above the TABOR limits, although the statutory mill levy would remain the same.  This morning’s Denver Post carries a Guest Commentary by yours truly urging Denver citizens to reject the measure if it makes it to the ballot this fall.

De-Brucing, so-named for TABOR author Douglas Bruce, would permit the city to retain all of that revenue. Citizens have already De-Bruced sales tax money, but the measure under consideration concerns much more money, and of course, would fall exclusively on Denver residents. This proposal is expected to allow the city government to keep an additional $44 million in 2013, and $68 million in future years.

In theory, that additional money would have to go to specific programs, and those programs will be listed in the bill title. At a meeting of the Council’s Government and Finance Committee on August 1, Council Member Chris Herndon asked Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell whether listing those items in the bill title would actually bind the City to spend the money in a particular way. Broadwell’s answer was yes. And no.

“We will have to do an accounting every year showing that the excess revenue over and above the Constitutional limit that the voters have allowed us to keep, if they vote yes, is being used for the purposes that they said. But frankly, I’ll have to frankly add that we’ve left ourselves a lot of flexibility within those various categories…”

Broadwell then goes on to explain that while the money can only be used for those specific categories, it doesn’t actually have to be used on any of them in a given year.

In an earlier meeting, Broadwell explained that this fall, because the budget needs to be considered before Election Day, the City Council will see two budget proposals, one with and one without the revenue from De-Brucing. Count on the Mayor’s office to make the programs funded by that extra money as popular as possible. But, in future years, the distinctions between what would be brought in under current statute, and the additional property tax money, would be lost. As long as the total amount being spent on those very broad categories totals more that the excess, the city government will always be able to claim it’s following the law.

In fact, what’s going on here is the traditional government budgeting shell-game, where high-profile, high-popularity programs are being use to sell the taxpayers on handing over more of their cash.