PERSPECTIVE: The agenda Colorado needs in 2024 (Michael Fields)
Building a better Colorado in 2024 requires placing the policy priorities on the needs of taxpayers, parents, and local communities, with the goal of reigniting the state’s economy and keeping government in check. This is at the heart of Advance Colorado’s legislative policy agenda on fiscal policy, crime and education.
As a new legislative session convenes, Coloradans know that daily life has become more expensive, the economy is sluggish, and our once world-class quality of life has taken a hit. Government leaders seem focused on finding new ways to capture more tax dollars, increasing our cost of living, allowing the rise in crime and resisting common-sense reforms for our schools.
As we turn the page to a new year, it’s time for an agenda that tackles these challenges head-on.
Last year, Coloradans from across the political spectrum pushed back on the plans of state leaders to fatten government’s treasury under the false premise of local tax relief. Voters saw through the transparently dishonest Proposition HH and crushed it at the ballot box.
An ensuing pre-Thanksgiving special legislative session failed to provide substantial tax breaks and so Colorado homeowners are still facing the largest property tax increase in state history. Local tax bills soon will be hitting mailboxes across the state.
A fundamental disagreement between many of our elected leaders and the taxpayers they represent is the use of refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). Too many at the state Capitol believe that these refunds are just another slush fund that can be scooped up for government’s spending priorities. However, the landslide defeat of Prop HH, which would have eventually ended TABOR refunds, shows that Coloradans believe they know best how to spend their refund dollars.
We believe that TABOR refunds should be safeguarded from the never-ending efforts by tax spenders in state government to grab these dollars and grow government.
To tackle the property tax crisis, we have proposed the Colorado Tax Rollback. This two-pronged solution would first roll back property tax rates to 2022 levels, before the tax tsunami began to build. Then, we suggest putting a reasonable — and permanent — cap on property tax increases. Government should not grow faster than taxpayers’ wages.
Older Coloradans, often on fixed incomes, are the ones who will be hit hardest by the property tax spike. While seniors are entitled to property tax exemptions, that benefit is tied to their current residence and is not portable when they choose to move. A new address doesn’t make the tax exemption less needed, and therefore the exemption should be tied to the individual taxpayer, not to a specific residence.
Another way government treats older Coloradans unfairly is in the event they face a foreclosure. Under law, local governments are not limited to just recouping back taxes owed. In fact, government can retain the entire equity that a property owner might have built up over the course of a lifetime. These funds can often be the majority of a family’s savings. While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled home equity theft unconstitutional, states such as Colorado must act to affirmatively end the process. This should be an easy, bipartisan agenda item in this year’s legislative session.
Improving the lives of Coloradans is not limited to common-sense fiscal policy. Targeting Colorado’s rising crime rate offers the opportunity to enhance the quality of life in local communities across the state.
In this new year, leaders must confront the reality that policies that focus on lesser penalties for criminals have coarsened our communities and made them more dangerous. Even the Denver mayor’s car was stolen recently.
Several solutions — that could win bipartisan support — would begin resetting the balance in favor of law-abiding Coloradans.
Few Coloradans know that violent offenders serve just 43% of their sentences on average, which means that these felons are back on the streets far earlier than their victims — and local communities — expected. Most go on to commit new crimes and create victims. A Truth in Sentencing law would require that violent criminals serve at least 85% of their sentences before being released. Watch for this measure to appear on this year’s ballot if the Legislature refuses to enact this pro-victim, anti-crime measure.
Colorado must also ban personal recognizance bonds for violent offenders where judges allow criminals to be released with no financial cost or risk. Judges merely trust that these offenders will keep their word, stay out of trouble and return voluntarily for court dates. Naive faith in criminals is bad news for Colorado communities. Banning PR bonds for violent offenders ensures that there will be a financial jeopardy attached when individuals are put back on the streets by the courts.
An area where sentences should be increased are for those selling illegal drugs. This poison, such as fentanyl, results in an average of nearly 2,000 overdose deaths each year. Local communities need a more powerful deterrent, which could save lives across Colorado.
Many neighborhoods are struggling with the impacts of homelessness, and the challenges of individuals suffering from mental illness. Douglas County, for example, has seen positive results by training and deploying community response teams that pair law enforcement with mental health professionals for people experiencing mental health crises.
Colorado should provide block grants to incentivize other counties to create community response teams.
One of the most effective deterrents to a life of crime is a quality education, which helps put young people on a path to a successful and productive life. While Colorado is home to many good schools, we can do much more to ensure that all children are offered access to a quality education, regardless of their economic background or where they live. At Advance Colorado, we are proposing an educational empowerment agenda for 2024.
One of the hallmarks of parental empowerment is to provide families with a broader array of schools to pick from for their kids and not be forced to accept the one assigned by government based on their address. For decades, there has been a bipartisan consensus in Colorado that allowing families choices within the public school system — including public charter schools — has been hugely successful.
Moreover, our laws governing home schools, private schools and charter schools are among the best in the country. It is time that we place the right to school choice in the state constitution.
School choice is focused on empowering parents to control their children’s course of education. During the pandemic, many parents discovered how little insight they had into what their kids are learning in school day to day. In some cases, schools sought to dissuade, discourage, and outright deny moms and dads access to curricula, and these parents learned how to use the legal system to get basic information that should be their fundamental right to know.
Colorado needs a school transparency law that would be a new tool for parents, requiring public schools to make curricula, surveys, and book lists readily accessible to parents.
It is also essential to empower parents of special needs children. It is not guaranteed that a neighborhood school or a charter school, for example, can provide the precise services that a child requires.
In some cases, the needed services and curricula can be specialized and expensive. It is unfair to these families to tell them that they must accept what is available, rather than have access to what is most effective. Colorado should make Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) available to help families choose the best option for their child with special needs. With an ESA, parents would receive funds for approved education expenses, which opens the opportunity to consider a wider range of options.
Military families also need tools to assist them in choosing and enrolling in schools, particularly when they are transferred into Colorado communities and might have missed enrollment deadlines.
It’s not the fault of parents — or students — that the military’s transfer calendars often don’t mesh with school districts’ calendars. Around the country, states have created Purple Star enrollment laws that guarantee military families can enroll their children at the public school of their choice even when district deadlines have passed. Given Colorado’s very significant military population, it is time for Colorado to join the list of Purple Star states.
Sadly, school safety, and the scourge of school shootings, remain a top concern for families, educators and law enforcement It is simply impossible to teach, and to learn, if everyone in a school building feels unsafe. Placing well-trained School Resource Officers (SROs) in our schools is not only a deterrent to violence but also an on-site presence to respond if a violent incident erupts. Too many school districts lack the resources to fund the salaries and training for SROs. Colorado has the funds to fill that essential gap to protect students and teachers — and provide parents peace of mind that their kids are protected.
Our Advance Colorado agenda focuses on the most pressing needs facing our state and offers nuts-and-bolts solutions that not only will work but can also have a long-term impact in improving the lives of millions of our fellow citizens. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Michael Fields is president of Advance Colorado.