Owens seeks TABOR solution

DENVER -- Gov. Bill Owens will work through the upcoming legislative session with the first Democrat dominated general assembly in 40 years.

The Republican governor is hoping the Democrats set aside partisan politics to deal with some of the challenges the state is facing this year. But he's keeping in mind that the legislative agenda might lean left.

"Obviously, after 40 years, they have some pent-up issues they'd like us to deal with," Owens said.

Owens addressed about 40 reporters during a legislative preview at the Denver Press Club on Wednesday. The general assembly convenes for its 120-day session Jan. 12.

Owens spent much of his speech focusing on budget issues. For the first time in four years, Owens said, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights will force the legislature to cut the budget.

Colorado voters added the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, to the state constitution in 1990. The amendment limits government growth and spending.

"We've had significant cuts driven by less revenue. This is the year, though, when we're going to have more revenue than TABOR allows us to keep," Owens said.

The state's revenue will increase by 4 percent to 5 percent this year, but TABOR only will allow revenue to increase by 1 percent. Owens suggested that the Legislature take $100 million from an $800 million to $900 million settlement the state has received from a tobacco industry lawsuit to shore up the budget. The remainder should be placed in a trust fund, he said.

Owens acknowledged that this was just a short-term solution. As a long-term fix, he encouraged the Legislature to write a ballot question that requests voters to "De-Bruce," or exempt, the state from certain TABOR restrictions.

Voters in Moffat County have approved ballot questions that entirely De-Bruced Moffat County School District and the City of Craig and mostly De-Bruced Moffat County. All three entities are still governed by TABOR's mandate that all tax increases must be voter approved.

A similar effort by Owens to secure state funds in a trust failed last year. But the governor said he would attempt to secure the tobacco funds this year, because the tobacco industry could some day fail, and the money it provides states would dry up.

"I think it makes good public policy sense as a conservative to set that money aside," Owens said.

Speaking after Owens concluded his remarks, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Groff said he supported developing "creative ideas to keep the spirit of TABOR alive."

Groff agreed that a short-term solution was needed and favored completely De-Brucing Colorado.

Groff voiced concerns that without a solution to the TABOR problem, the Legislature would continue cutting higher education. Because most of Colorado's budget is composed of services mandated by the state Constitution or the federal government, higher education has suffered most of the Legislature's budget cuts.

Owens is open to amending the state Constitution to change TABOR provisions that have troubled the state during the budgeting process.

The state House of Representatives wrote five such measures last year, but four of them died on the Senate floor, and one never made it past the committee stage.

Moreover, there has been controversy among legal experts about whether state constitution permits the Legislature to write a ballot question during an odd-numbered year, Owens said. If the Legislature cannot write a question this year, he encouraged the lawmakers to do so next year.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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