Colorado lawmakers gearing up for tax debate |

Colorado lawmakers gearing up for tax debate

DENVER, Colorado ” Lawmakers are prepared to spend the rest of the session, if necessary, trying to hammer out an agreement on conflicting fiscal provisions in the Colorado Constitution, hoping to accomplish in 16 days a feat that has stymied the General Assembly for years.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat from Denver who is term-limited, is confident it can be done.

His plan, which is still being drafted and is expected to be introduced this week, would create a savings account for public schools, require a two-thirds vote of both houses to access the account and repeal automatic spending increases in Amendment 23, which provides increased funding for public schools.

It also tackles another major issue, eliminating tax surplus refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, while still allowing people to vote on tax increases.

Previous attempts fell apart because Democrats wanted to protect school funding and Republicans wanted limits on the state’s ability to tax and spend. When the state economy tanked in 2002, lawmakers were forced to ask voters for a five-year time out on tax-surplus refunds, but that expires in 2011.

Romanoff said something needs to be done soon and he believes his plan will work.

“If we don’t do anything, we will be back in the same mess in five years,” Romanoff said.

The plan has plenty to like and plenty to hate on both sides of the aisle.

Romanoff said his plan protects the spirit of both Amendment 23 and TABOR, while resolving conflicts that required the state to increase funding for public education, while at the same time slashing funding for state agencies and projects, some of which have never fully recovered because of TABOR restrictions that continue to limit budget increases.

Key protections in Romanoff’s proposal include the constitutional right of people to vote on taxes, it provides money for a rainy day and public education, it doesn’t increase taxes and it prevents state government from growing beyond its means.

Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter said he’s interested in the idea and would continue to work with Romanoff on it, but stopped short of an outright endorsement.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, said the state is on track to take in $5.8 billion ” $2 billion more than originally forecast ” by the end of Referendum C’s five-year time out. He said the state was able to survive the post-Sept. 11 recession under the budget constraints.

“If we’ve survived the worst we can certainly pass budgets going forward without getting deeper into taxpayers’ pockets,” said Mitchell.

The bill would require a two-thirds vote in each house and voter approval. If approved, it could be on the ballot as early as November.

Other bills up this week:

” The House Education Committee on Monday will decide whether to form a study committee to review proposals to abolish the Board of Education and Commission on Higher Education and merge the departments of Education and Higher Education. Lawmakers say it’s the best way for the state to implement a plan to integrate preschool through college.

” The Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday will take up a proposal from a Republican senator who is proposing a constitutional amendment in response to a plea deal made by Gov. Bill Ritter when he was Denver district attorney. Sen. Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch wants to ask voters to bar prosecutors from making plea agreements with illegal immigrants that would allow them to remain in the United States.

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