Opinion: Polis’ property tax fix is a bad deal for Colorado taxpayers

Colorado is still facing a property tax crisis of historic proportions.

Runaway growth in property values caused by a lack of housing supply, growing demand from population increases, and 20-years’ worth of cheap money policy from the Federal Reserve have caused a perfect storm of escalating home values. As home assessed values grow so do taxes triggering property tax increases in all corners of our state.

Just how significant is this year’s property tax increase? An economist at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business warned that new property tax costs to homeowners could impact consumer spending and cause an economic slowdown.

For the fourth time in as many years, the Colorado legislature has enacted a complicated new law intended to address this problem.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that these Golden Dome political compromises have continued to miss the mark.

Last year, the legislature’s grand agreement on property tax was Proposition HH, a slick-sounding plan that repackaged refunds already owed to taxpayers and called them property tax relief. At the same time, the plan grabbed an even larger sum of taxpayer refunds to spend on public education. While clever, the plan didn’t stand up to scrutiny — there was no real tax relief in it — and the voters defeated HH in a landslide.

This year, the legislature is back with a different inside-the-Capitol deal. While it is better than Proposition HH, and we credit those who fought to get some property tax relief on the business side, the package is still a woefully inadequate response for homeowners being crushed by soaring property taxes.

Rather than materially reducing taxes that homeowners pay, this year’s version of a grand bargain actually increases the total effective property tax rate from 6.3% this year to 6.8%. For the property taxes paid to our schools, the legislature’s agreement would increase the property tax rate even more — to 7.1%.

As with Proposition HH last year, this year’s agreement is a blatant attempt to dress up an education tax increase in the clothes of property tax relief. It’s insincere. If the legislature wants to increase taxes for our schools, all it must do is ask the voters. To come back with a different variation of the same ploy that voters rejected less than one year ago is equal parts disappointing and disingenuous.

This is only the beginning of the problems with the property tax agreement.

The agreement purports to put a cap on property tax collections at 5.5%. The problem is that the limit wouldn’t apply to local government borrowing or debt, it wouldn’t apply to many (and maybe even most) districts who have already raised their property tax limits, and it would do little to slow the surging increases caused by growing home values.

Here again, it looks like the legislature is trying to snooker the public into believing they implemented a 5.5% cap when what they really enacted was a property tax cap riddled with loopholes and exceptions.

Other concerns with the legislative deal are many — notably, the deal takes us down the road of taxing homes worth more than $700,000 as if they were mansions owned by millionaires.  In many parts of the state, a $700,000 home is below the median cost.

One good aspect of the agreement is that it would reduce the state’s commercial property taxes, a badly needed step after the Gallagher Amendment punished businesses with higher property taxes for decades. But even this raises a question: Why would the legislature address the impacts of soaring property taxes for businesses but ignore those same impacts on everyday homeowners?

For all these reasons, we are enthusiastic supporters of ballot measures that would legitimately reduce property taxes and in a way that balances the legitimate needs of state and local governments. The business community has stuck to its guns in demanding sensible property tax relief, and the voters will get the chance to deliver that this November.

Some interest groups claim that the modest property tax cuts in the ballot measures would cause budget calamity. This is not true. Reducing the rate of growth in state and local budgets is not a cut, a fact that savvy Colorado voters will recognize immediately.

What’s more, these ballot measures actually prevent state government from cutting public education, and the initiatives would require the state of Colorado to fund local services like firefighters, water, and local social safety net programs funded by property taxes.

The truth is, we can implement meaningful property tax relief and fund the government services the public needs.

Tim Foster, an attorney at Coleman & Quigley, is the former President of Colorado Mesa University  and Director of Colorado Department of Higher Education. He also served as the Majority Leader of the Colorado House of Representatives. Jan Kulmann, a Professional Engineer, is in her second term as the Mayor of Thornton. She also serves as vice chair of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council and is a member of the North I-25 Coalition.

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