Democrats, Jared Polis split on income tax change transparency effort

Democrats in the Colorado Legislature want to make sure voters are informed about how changes to the state income tax rate would affect the amount of money they have to pay to the government. But supporters of the effort must bypass Gov. Jared Polis to do so.

Senate Bill 222which was introduced last week, would return a measure to the November ballot that would require nonpartisan Legislative Council staff to create a table showing how much more or less people in eight income categories would pay as a result of the change.

The table should appear on any future ballot measure proposing to raise or lower the income tax rate. It should also appear on petitions circulated by signature collectors for tax measures on the ballot.

A version of the chart already appears in the “Blue Book,” the nonpartisan voting guide published by the state and distributed to all Colorado voters. But supporters of Senate Bill 222 say their legislation would make it easier for people to see information before voting on tax policy.

Senator Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and lead sponsor of the legislation, called Senate Bill 222 “an incredibly important tax transparency measure.”

The bill is an extension of a measure passed by Democratic lawmakers last year requiring ballot measures to cut taxes include an explanation how much revenue would be reduced and which programs would be most affected. The 2021 legislation also now requires ballot initiatives raising taxes to explain how the new revenue would be spent.

In this April 12, 2019, file photo, Colorado Senator Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, applauds after speaking at the signing of a bill that made Colorado the 15th state to pass a “red flag” law. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

But the sponsors of this year’s bill — Pettersen and Democratic Senator Dominick Moreno and Democratic Representatives Chris Kennedy and Mike Weissman — are asking for voter approval to make the change instead of just passing a bill because they say Polis, a fellow Democrat, won’t sign such a policy change into law.

“There are a number of components (last year) where we reached agreement with the governor,” said Kennedy, a Lakewood lawmaker who also worked on last year’s bill. “But he expressed some concern about the idea of ​​printing a table where he breaks down the value of the tax benefit or tax increase into different income brackets… on the ballot itself . So this year what we’ve introduced is a bill that’s going to defer that to the voters so the governor doesn’t have to weigh in on it.

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The governor, whose philosophy on tax policy has been hard to pin down, frequently clashes with Democrats in the Legislature over tax proposals.

Liberal members of the House and Senate would like to see him pass changes that would make the state’s tax code more progressive by charging wealthier Coloradoans more than their lower-income neighbors. Instead, Polis advocated for the reduction and even elimination of state income taxes in a libertarian streak that brought him national attention.

The governor’s office did not comment on the merits of the bill when asked by the Colorado Sun, but a spokeswoman said Polis believes the proposed change is something voters should decide.

“Governor. Polis thinks voters should decide how questions are presented on the people’s ballot because it’s their ballot, not the state legislature’s ballot,” said Kara Powell, “This includes whether or not to approve requiring a table in the tax summary for any ballot initiative that would increase or decrease the tax rate.”

If the question comes to the November ballot it will be too late to affect Initiative 31a measure backed by Republicans already on the ballot this year that aims to cut the income tax rate to 4.4% from 4.55%.

Republicans fought the Democrats’ 2021 Ballot Transparency Bill and are now fighting the 2022 Senate Bill. They view both pieces of legislation as an affront to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the 1992 Colorado constitution requiring voters to approve tax changes and limiting government growth and spending.

Jesse Mallory, who heads the Colorado branch of Americans For Prosperity, an organization that staunchly defends TABOR, said “nothing screams ‘our friends have a tax hike coming’ quite like (this bill). ”

Other conservatives argue that Senate Bill 222 is unnecessary since the information is already in the blue book.

“I hear a lot of people say that the language of the ballots is already way too long and way too complicated,” said Michael Fields, a conservative fiscal policy campaigner. “This legislature should spend more time on increasing public safety and lowering the cost of living – and less on meddling in the citizens’ initiative process.”

Colorado Democrats, who have long been opponents of TABOR, have essentially recognized in recent years that trying to repeal TABOR is not politically feasible at this time. That’s why they introduced bills like Senate Bill 222 to try to lessen the impact of the policy.

The 2020 Election Blue Book is compiled by nonpartisan legislative staff to help voters understand ballot metrics. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis and House Democrats even unveiled a plan last week to advance $400 TABOR refund checks to every Coloradan taxpayer in late August or early September. The money was to be distributed in April 2023.

The proposal was dismissed by Republicans as an election stunt, with conservatives criticizing Democrats for embracing TABOR and trying to use it to their political advantage after years of trying to untangle politics.

Senate Bill 222 cleared its first committee on Tuesday along party lines and advanced to the Senate on Friday.

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