Is it typical political spin or something more tangible that makes Gov. Bill Ritter so incredibly confident that the Colorado Supreme Court will vindicate his strategy to raise your property taxes without your permission?
Taxpayers should reasonably ask that question after the Governor and his staff voiced no concern at all when Judge Christina Habas ruled that last year’s property tax hike “for the children” improperly short-circuited the state constitution.
If the state supreme court concurs with Habas, then egg on their faces will be only a minor problem facing Ritter and Democrat legislators — who unanimously backed the tax hike. Much more significant is the reality that both state budgets signed by Ritter were built around the $272 million produced by the tax increase.
Shortly after the district court ruling, Republican lawmakers asked Ritter to outline a contingency plan for balancing the budget without the tax increase. Incredibly, Ritter’s spokesman dismissed that request as “playing partisan politics.”
Cooler heads might call the request “prudent” or “fiscally responsible.” Still, Ritter’s budget staff would likely respond with a list of “hostages,” threatening draconian cuts, rather than simply tightening its belt and trimming back programs that were expanded due to the property tax hike.
Makes you wonder how a governor — and former district attorney, no less — who swore an oath to uphold the constitution can continue whistling through the graveyard after his day in court yielded a judicial smackdown that could crimp his budget by more than a quarter-billion dollars.
Either Ritter is bluffing or thinks he has inside assurances, which would be improper, that the supreme court will rule in his favor. A shrewd poker player — much less a wise statesman — wouldn’t be so audaciously confident.
Certainly, the odds are ultimately in Ritter’s favor — not because he’s right about the law (he isn’t), but because the court has a track record of ignoring the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) when it doesn’t fit the court’s policy preferences.
By contrast, Habas provided a textbook example of the role of a judge. She clearly seemed sympathetic to what she described as the “well-intentioned and commendable … purpose” of Ritter’s legislation, but she courageously observed that “this Court must be concerned only with the enforcement of the Colorado Constitution.”
Habas’ ruling found certain facts that higher courts will be hard pressed to ignore, even if the justices want to overrule her:
• The legislation in question changed tax policy. Prior to Senate Bill 199, which implemented the tax hike, “all of Colorado’s local school districts followed the provisions of the School Finance Act requiring the mill levy to be adjusted downward in the event property values rose.”
• The change in policy resulted in an increase in revenue. “It was further undisputed … that the direct fiscal impact of SB 199 was the collection of $117,838,000.”
• Voters in local school districts never approved this change. Colorado Department of Education consistently advised school districts that were asking voters to override spending limits that these ballot questions “will have NO effect on your district’s school finance mill levy” and that the ballot measurers “were not asked in a way to allow a change in tax policy.”
Those findings are critical because TABOR requires voter approval of “a tax policy change directly causing a net tax revenue gain to any district.”
Ritter and his policy advisors argued that, because 174 of 178 school districts had received voter approval to retain “all revenues,” schools could also keep additional revenue if the state legislature amended the law to “recapture increases in property taxes due to increased property values.”
The only peculiarity in Habas’ ruling was her finding that SB 199 reflects a change to local school district tax policy but not to state tax policy. She arrives at this conclusion because the policy change did not apply to the four school districts that had not received voter approval to override spending limits.
That’s a puzzling conclusion given that the policy in question is a bill enacted by the state legislature to change state law.
Still, Habas’ decision is legally and factually grounded. If the Supreme Court overturns it, the public deserves to know what Gov. Ritter knew and when he knew it.