Colorado Springs: A Microcosm of Tea Party Government

Yesterday, Ed Schultz on MSNBC's The Ed Show did a segment on the condition of Colorado Springs, Colorado - a city that is now forced to turn off street lights, lay off police officers and fire fighters, forgo the investigations of felonies, and cut back on other essential city services, thanks to a feel-good but disastrous law called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).

Just to give you some idea of what the city of Colorado Springs is dealing with before we get to the video, the Denver Post paints a picture:
The buses stop running at 6:15 p.m. now, and most streetlights stay dark throughout the night. Three city pools have shut down, and turf is withering in more than 100 parks.

What's a city to do when its museums are struggling to stay open and there aren't enough police officers to investigate crimes?

Here is more of what this law is doing to this city:



The law not only requires voter approval to raise taxes, it also restricts revenue raising without taxes.
TABOR limits the amount of revenue a jurisdiction can take in during a calendar year. The dollar figure for the City of Colorado Springs is established through a calculation based upon inflation and local growth during the previous year. If the previous year’s revenue collections were less than the TABOR limit for that year, then the lower figure — the actual collections — are used in the formula to compute the current year’s TABOR limit.

In years when revenue exceeds the legal cap, the law requires the overage to be returned to taxpayers. Alternatively, elected officials may ask voters — through an election — for permission to retain the money.
Let's ignore for a minute the cost of holding all these ballot initiatives - which, incidentally, happen to be funded by taxpayers.

What the TABOR law is saying is that even if revenues are up because of growth in productivity, new businesses opening up, or other reasons, the city cannot keep the extra revenue beyond the growth in population and inflation.  What if revenues are down one year because of particularly hard economic times, and oh, let's say, a severe credit shortage because of which small businesses in the city are forced to close their doors?  Well, you get to use this disaster-time revenue to calculate how much revenue the city gets to keep the next year.  The city is allowed to keep the least amount of revenues in the exact moment when city services are in the greatest demand.  What is the effect on revenues long term of only able to use the previous year's figures?  Adrian Stanley of the Colorado Independent explains:
Back to the city. Imagine, for a second, that since 1991 — when the city's version of TABOR passed — Colorado Springs had maintained consistent economic health. Adjusted for inflation and city growth, the general fund budget would now be $349 million.

That's more than $120 million over what it actually is — $228 million.
Colorado Springs used to be affected by two different TABOR laws - that of the city and that of the state.  The state of Colorado passed a referendum in 2005 to suspend the state TABOR law's revenue provisions, allowing the state to keep any extra revenue (but not raise taxes), until 2010.  But no such luck for the city of Colorado Springs, which must still abide by the most restrictive of tax and revenue standards.

If revenues really grew for the city as much as inflation and population growth over the long term, there would be enough money today in Colorado Springs to cover pension and health care costs that now the city is forced to cut.  We go back to the Denver Post for the disaster this policy has created.
Just seven months ago, municipal officials laid out details of a desperate financial situation. Revenues were down about $16 million. That amount, and enough to cover $8 million more in rising pension and health care costs, had to be whacked from the 2010 budget. It was the second year in a row of major shortfalls.

There was a solution, though: The city asked voters to approve a tax that would pay for routine services.

But voters said no.

So now, as promised, services many took for granted are vanishing. [...]

At Village Green Park, just off Carefree Circle on the city's east side, weeds flourish, and stenciled onto a bathroom door: "Restrooms Closed Due to Budget Restrictions."

"If you have kids who are potty trained, that's a problem," said Rachel Barker, 33, playing at the swings with her toddler. "There's probably a lot of kids peeing in the weeds."
But that is not all.  Even in a dire situation like this, the "TABOR formula" for Colorado Springs says that the city has too much money.  You read that right:
Very soon, officials will be told that despite the dearth of revenue that has forced budget cuts and layoffs the last two years, property tax provisions in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights dictate that Colorado Springs is showing a $600,000 “surplus.”

Even the self-proclaimed conservative is starting to see the darkness:
"I came from Minnesota — from the overtaxed to the undertaxed," said Gary Kulbitski, 43, playing with his kids at the Julie Penrose Fountain, a sculptural wading pool that no longer receives city money. A nonprofit has kept it flowing.

"I'm a conservative, but I think shutting down parks and stuff is a mistake," he said. "I don't think people understood their kids wouldn't be able to go swimming."
That's just it.  When people vote on these taxpayer bills of rights, they do not understand its impact.  They do not understand that their zealotry against even proper taxation will one day mean that their kids won't be able to go swimming.  It will one day mean that police won't be able to investigate a break in at their home.  It will one day mean that the Fire department will be too late.  One day, it will mean that their streets are no longer safe to walk at night, because the street lights are off.

And if this anti-tax euphoria fueled by the Tea Party and the Republicans don't subside, it will mean everything from closing of schools to rising crime to broken highways to undermining of public safety.  If they ever succeed in making the government so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub, they better be ready for lead in the toothpaste of their children, and mercury in their drinking water, since our taxes pay for these enforcements.  They better be ready for a day when we lack the strongest military in the world, because those who would join have been deprived of a proper public education, are sick because of lack of safety enforcements in food and water, or worse, dead because of crimes the police did not have the funds to investigate.  Colorado Springs is but a microcosm of Tea Party government.

If that is the endgame one wants, then by all means, they should listen to the anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric and vote accordingly.  If, however, one acknowledged that we must protect important services - not the least of which is public safety - paid for by our tax dollars, they must realize that this type of euphoria is going to hurt our country.  This is the time to realize that if the far right took power - and currently they are the wind beneath the wing of the Republican Party - they will push us towards a future like that of Colorado Springs.  This is fundamentally about what kind of a country we want - and I firmly believe we want a better country in which common wealth for common good is a good thing.