Panel recommends large-scale reform

Get rid of Tabor, Amendment 23
Special to The Colorado Statesman

A bipartisan panel comprised of academic, civic and business leaders recommended this week that Colorado dump a constitutional provision that limits state revenue and another that mandates education spending. The University of Denver Strategic Issues Panel on State Government also unveiled proposals to separate funding for state services into individual, dedicated revenue streams, enact a “Taxpayer Value Council” and fund all public schools and colleges through transferable vouchers for students.

While respecting the intent of the provisions, the panel views both TABOR and Amendment 23 as destabilizing forces on the state budget. Both constitutional amendments either spend or cut from the state budget “irrespective of economic conditions,” and ultimately cause turmoil for Colorado’s economy, panel members believe.

While other studies have blamed the two constitutional measures for hamstringing state finances, the panel broke ground by advocating for a market-based system in which students at all levels of the educational system would receive transferable vouchers for their education.

“We are suggesting that the government fund individuals rather than institutions,” said James Griesemer, panel chair and DU dean emeritus. The success or failure of schools would hinge on whether they could attract and create educational value for students in order to retain funding.

The report also recommends that the state “can benefit from applying the principle of competition to internal state services.”

Language in the report signaled a rebuke of federal policies that drive state spending.

“The idea that if one level of government sets forth standards, say, in Medicaid, then it has the responsibility to pay for those standards,” said Griesemer, is something the state needs to examine.

One way this could occur would be through a new “Taxpayer Value Council,” which would provide information so residents could judge the value of state services. By clearly showing how different programs are funded, taxpayers would be able to see if they are getting enough bang for their buck. These “accountability centers” would “link all or part of a defined revenue source with a specific area of service” in order to better discern how usefully taxpayer dollars are being spent.

The DU study, dubbed “Rethinking Colorado’s Government,” suggests that government be examined “from the point of view of creating value for citizens,” said Griesemer. “We need to have the means of expressing the value that government creates.”

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, signaled that Republicans would fight against any effort to weaken or alter TABOR. But he generally supports non-politicians engaging in the policy discussion. Democratic legislators said they are apprehensive about a possible repeal of Amendment 23 in the wake of large cuts to K-12 education funding.

Griesemer acknowledged that it could prove difficult to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on the recommendations. “Government is stymied. We are having a debate that doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere,” he said. “At it’s most basic, the report says we need to think about government in a different way.”
The study received somewhat tepid encouragement elsewhere under the Dome.

“The governor was briefed recently on the study. It’s an important document that deserves public scrutiny and attention for the insights it makes on the state budget and the hard choices facing Colorado,” said Eric Brown, Hickenlooper’s communication director.

The panel avoided saying whether the state should raise or cut taxes. By providing public proper information, they contended, Coloradans would be able to make responsible decisions regarding fiscal policy.

“The report fundamentally believes that citizens can make those kind of judgments and need to be in power to make those judgments. So, it’s really an optimistic view of government, sort of a rarity in this day and age,” remarked Griesemer.

Former state Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament, who served in the Legislature and sat on the DU panel, said that dire economic times make the task at hand more urgent.

”In the difficult times we’re in right now, people are concerned about what the government is doing,” he said. “This report sets a new way for people to understand what government does for them, how we can foster a better understanding, how people need to be concerned about what state policy-makers are doing on their behalf and what they get out of it.”

Panel member Lowell Hare, managing partner at H&L Investment Company, praised the pragmatism of the panel.

“We have to get away from just talking about taxes and spending. This report was based on shared values and involving citizens in the process,” he said.

The recommendations from the DU panel come at a time of lingering economic hardship for the state, which has faced large budget shortfalls in recent years. Legislators have already been advised that they likely will have to make more cuts and deal with a $1 billion shortfall in the coming year.

Earlier, the panel projected that by 2034, the only programs that the state would be able to afford are health care services and K-12 education.