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“Tussle over Colorado's tough finances roils governor's race”
DENVER - A November ballot proposal to fix Colorado's financial woes has sparked a nasty and expensive campaign that has split the state's Republican base, already reeling from losses in last fall's elections.
Gov. Bill Owens, once touted as presidential material in conservative Republican circles, teamed with Democrats last spring in drawing up the proposal that will ask voters to give up as much as $3.7 billion in tax refunds over the next five years.
This from a politician who used to tout the constitutional amendment that limits how much Colorado governments can tax and spend - an amendment that would essentially be put on hold if twin ballot measures pass Nov. 1.
Then there is the race to replace the term-limited Owens next year. Republican Marc Holtzman is attacking his likely primary opponent, Rep. Bob Beauprez, for not declaring outright opposition to the ballot plan, hoping to lock up support from conservatives. The GOP is trying to rebound from last fall after losing two open seats (Ken Salazar went to the Senate and his brother, John, was elected to the House) and control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in more then 40 years.
Not that Democrats exactly have their act together: Their only official candidate for governor so far is former Denver prosecutor Bill Ritter, who opposes abortion.
Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver, said he thinks potential candidates are waiting to see if the measures pass because they may not want to preside over a state that could face millions more in budget cuts.
"This has been a very divisive issue," Ciruli said.
The turmoil centers on the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment approved by 54 percent of voters in 1992. It limits the growth of government spending to 6 percent a year and requires voter approval for tax hikes.
The amendment, considered the strictest in any state, holds down state taxes and fees through a formula based on population growth and inflation. Extra money must be refunded to taxpayers, who got millions during the late 1990s before the economy soured in 2001. Even with a rebound, government spending will be forced to use a ratcheted-down level as a base.
TABOR has been held up either as a blueprint for limited government or the biggest reason Colorado lawmakers have cut everything from health programs to higher education.
California has a similar spending limit on the Nov. 8 ballot, proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Voters in Ohio, Maine, Nevada and Arizona are looking at similar measures next year.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Colorado has been a national model of fiscal sanity. He says politicians who fail to support spending limits - he singles out Owens - are committing political suicide.
"The lesson to be learned from Colorado is that a governor who could have been president, once he turned on TABOR, ended his national ambitions," Norquist said. "Being on the wrong side of this issue is a career-ender."
Colorado's Referendum C would temporarily lift government spending limits imposed by TABOR and allow the state to keep tax revenue considered surplus under the amendment. Referendum D would allow the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects; it would take effect only if C is approved.
Supporters of the plan have raised more than $2 million, with the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the state teachers' union among the biggest contributors.
Jon Caldara, chairman of the "Vote No; It's Your Dough" campaign, recently reported just $107,000 in contributions. But his conservative think tank is being accused of using nearly $400,000 to run ads that ridicule the ballot measures as a tax grab.
"Never before has TABOR been in such danger," Caldara said.
Holtzman, meanwhile, has been accusing Beauprez of being soft on TABOR. Beauprez said he opposes major changes to TABOR - something Holtzman's campaign manager, Dick Leggitt, says is a mixed message.
"I think when you sit in the middle of the road, you get run over," Leggitt said.
Beauprez spokesman John Marshall said the congressman has never wavered in opposing TABOR as a "tax increase."
Joelle Martinez, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, said the party voted to back the TABOR proposals in a rare public stand on a ballot issue. Ritter said he saw the devastating impact of the spending limits up close when he was Denver's district attorney.
"I'm not waffling. I'm fully supportive of C and D," he said.
TABOR supporters recently brought in former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who accused Owens in a face-to-face debate of "drinking backslider wine" for supporting the ballot measure. The measure's author, Douglas Bruce, has threatened to sue if voters approve the ballot plan.
Owens acknowledged the plan does not have much support among Republicans, but he said Colorado is facing a crisis next year if voters refuse to give up surplus tax refunds. He said he is simply backing TABOR's provision that requires voter approval involving tax dollars.
Democrat Wally Stealey, a former lobbyist who helped kill two prior attempts to limit government spending, said neither party understood the full impact of TABOR until the economy slumped. Still, he and others remember Democratic former Gov. Roy Romer warning that passage of TABOR would force the state to put up a "going out of business sign."
"I was opposed to it in the beginning," Stealey said of TABOR. "Now I'm fanatically opposed."