EDITORIAL: Polis would pay us with our own money

·3 min read

May 26—We'll say it again now that Gov. Jared Polis has inked his purported "relief" for soaring property taxes: His plan is largely an illusion.

Ignore the stagecraft of Wednesday's signing ceremony for Senate Bill 23-303. It was a nice publicity stunt — the governor and assorted lawmakers turning up at the home of a Commerce City resident who supposedly would benefit. It was all sleight of hand.

As we noted here only weeks ago, the Polis plan is as if someone offered to help you pay your bills — then reached into your pocket, grabbed your wallet, pulled out some money and handed it to you.

Which was motivation enough for the ballot measure that is the centerpiece of SB 23-303 to be challenged in court.

A lawsuit was filed in Denver District Court this month by the government watchdog group Advance Colorado Institute, asserting Proposition HH is unconstitutional because it attempts to cover too many subjects. A slate of Colorado counties and other local governments and elected officials joined the court action as plaintiffs this week.

Make no mistake, Polis' complicated legislation will ask voters on this November's statewide ballot to pay for their own property-tax relief.

It will lower the state's assessment rate slightly for residential and commercial property for the next decade — but then offset the lost revenue by tapping taxpayers' pending refunds of surplus revenue the state expects to collect each year in excess of constitutional limits on year-to-year budget growth. The measure also would ask voters to raise those limits in future years, allowing the state to keep another 1% each year.

The bottom line is that money that was supposed to be returned to the public instead will be used to make up for a modest reduction in property taxes.

It's a make-believe solution to the very real surge in property tax bills that's coming next spring. It follows a decision by Colorado voters in 2020 to eliminate the state constitution's longtime hedge against such increases in homeowners' property taxes.

That hedge, the Gallagher amendment had served as a check on rising property tax bills for decades by limiting revenue government could derive from residential property taxes. With Gallagher gone —and property values soaring across the state — taxes are expected to skyrocket as much as 50%.

Assuming voters go along with HH, the state is supposed to use much of its revenue windfall to backfill local governments that theoretically will be shorted by the lower property tax assessment rate.

Yet, even at the lower rate, local governments still can anticipate their own windfall due to the leap in property values and resulting property tax bills in much of Colorado. So, why would they need to be "reimbursed" even more money from the state? They don't.

But here's the clincher: Even Polis doesn't claim the 10-year reduction in the statewide assessment rates comes close to offsetting the untold leap in property tax liability in coming years for Colorado homeowners since Gallagher was repealed. The plan merely lowers the amount of the increase.

Meanwhile, the scheme will claim, by the state legislative staff's projections, about $525 million — yes, over half a billion dollars — of refunds that otherwise would have gone back to taxpayers in just the first two years it is in effect.

The state's fiscal analysis of the measure estimates that after 10 years, Proposition HH likely will be hauling in an additional $2.2 billion that should have gone back to taxpayers.

Alongside that, only $128 million has been budgeted out of current state revenue — for only the first year of the plan — to provide property-tax relief; the rest will be new revenue out of taxpayers' pockets for years to come.

Critics are calling it the shift and shaft. That sounds just about right.

The Gazette editorial Board