"[I]t would be nice to hear the truth": Post's Harsanyi misled on Ref. C


Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi parroted a conservative talking point in suggesting that the current estimate of revenue to be retained from Colorado Referendum C, $5.37 billion, includes "extra cash" that the state should refund because the original amount planned for the measure was $3.7 billion. Harsanyi did not note that the lower figure explicitly was described as an "estimate."

Repeating a conservative talking point in his March 22 Denver Post column, David Harsanyi suggested that the currently estimated state-retained revenue from Referendum C, which is approximately $1.6 billion greater than the $3.7 billion figure at the time the measure was adopted, includes "extra cash" that the state has an obligation to refund. In fact, as Colorado Media Matters has pointed out repeatedly (here, here, here, and here), the 2005 Colorado Blue Book explicitly described the $3.7 billion figure Harsanyi cited as an "estimate."

In approving Referendum C in 2005, voters authorized the state "to retain and spend all state revenues" through 2010, suspending the spending restrictions imposed by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR). After noting that the chief economist for the Legislative Council, Mike Mauer, recently had projected that revenue retained under Referendum C would be $5.37 billion rather than $3.7 billion, Harsanyi suggested that legislators should "refund" the difference:

I'm sure you've noticed how politicians steer clear of using the word "tax" in the same paragraph as "raise" or "hike" -- or anything vaguely synonymous with "increase."

These days, tax hikes are couched in more artistic terminology: "freezes," "time outs" and my personal favorite, "investments."

My admiration for linguistic creativity aside, sometimes it would be nice to hear the truth.

Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), luckily, compels government to ask the people before raising taxes. And Coloradans have been very reasonable about giving when needed.

Remember when the state was collapsing from the weight of its own success? Well, most of you voted yes on Referendum C. And no, it wasn't a tax increase per se, it was just a "timeout" ... from, you know, a time without tax increases.

Turns out, during this timeout, Colorado legislators will be busy keeping a lot more of your money than suggested during the campaign for Referendum C.

This week, Mike Mauer, chief economist for the Legislative Council -- whose forecast was the gold standard for proponents of Referendum C during the campaign -- says that the state will take in $5.37 billion over the five years, not the $3.7 billion that was pounded into our consciousness at the time.

Surely, legislators are exploring ways to refund all that extra cash.

However, there is nothing "extra" about the difference in estimated retained revenues. As Colorado Media Matters noted, the entry for Referendum C in the 2005 ballot information booklet "estimate[d]" that such retained revenues would amount to $3.7 billion, but explicitly noted that "[t]he exact amount of the spending increase could be higher or lower, depending on the economy and the amount of money collected."

Harsanyi's comments regarding Referendum C echoed those of Independence Institute president Jon Caldara, who has claimed (here and here) that Ref. C was "sold" to the public as costing $3.7 billion.

As Colorado Media Matters noted, during the 2006 election campaign, Caldara and the Independence Institute backed Initiative 88, which would have sought a "modification of the limit on state fiscal year spending approved [by passage of Referendum C] at the November 2005 election" and would have required that the state refund "revenues above the amount estimated in the 2005 ballot information booklet," according to the Colorado secretary of state. Caldara subsequently refrained from submitting required supporting signatures to put the initiative on the ballot because, as he reportedly explained, the initiative's backers did not have sufficient funds to promote it successfully.

Colorado Media Matters also noted that the revised retained revenue forecast also has prompted some in the media to repeat the mischaracterization of Referendum C as a "tax." In fact, the measure neither raised any then-existing tax rates nor imposed any additional taxes.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.