By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Angry over fee increases backed by lawmakers in recent legislative sessions, Republican Sen. Greg Brophy is attempting to send to voters a constitutional amendment that would only allow fees to be levied to defray costs for specific government services related to that fee.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 008 asks lawmakers to send to voters a proposal to amend the state constitution to define a “fee” as a charge intended to only defray the cost of a particular government service and be related to the cost of that service.
Lawmakers would not be allowed to raise fees or create fees for the purpose of raising revenue for the general fund.
Brophy, R-Wray, points to more than 50 bills backed by lawmakers last year that increased or created fees, costing taxpayers around $636 million this year. At the heart of the debate is the Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery (FASTER) legislation backed by Democrats last year that raised vehicle registration fees to raise an estimated $250 million annually for transportation funding.
Brophy believes many of the fee increases did not directly impact the specific government services they were intended to cover, which is why he calls it a tax requiring a vote of the people. He points out that certain fee increases, such as the brand fee for cattle, would not require a vote of the people since the fee only covers costs related to the inspection.
“Voters deserve to know how their hard-earned money is spent,” Brophy said in a statement. “If they pay for a driver’s license, the fee should cover the cost to make the license and keep the records associated with the license, not to build highways.”
Democrats, however, point out that of the more than 50 bills last year establishing or changing fees, two eliminated fees and one established a hospital provider fee so that hospitals could receive an increased funding match from the federal government. The Colorado Healthcare Affordability Act aims at raising a federal match that amounts to an estimated additional $600 million in extra hospital funding annually.
The legislation reflects an estimated $219 million of the $556 million in fees to taxpayers last year and $246 million of the $636 million in additional fees passed on to taxpayers this year.
Democrats also point out that some Republicans signed on to at least 47 of the fee-increase bills. Twenty-five of the bills passed with at least eight Republican votes and 20 of the bills passed with unanimous Republican approval, say Senate Democrats.
Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center, does not believe it is a good idea to restrict lawmakers when making decisions on fees. He says some fees may not seem like they’re going to the specific service the charge is intended to defray, but that they have residual benefits.
“We do an awful ‘lot of things with fees,” said Buchanan. “This kind of has a blanket definition of what a fee is that I think raises a lot more questions than answers.”
Buchanan does not believe the measure will make its way through the Legislature, noting that a concurrent resolution needs a two-thirds super majority to make its way to voters. It is scheduled for a hearing Monday at the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee.
Buchanan says lawmakers need more room to work, not less room.
“I don’t know what we expect our lawmakers to do,” he said. “We want them to provide services and yet we don’t want them to have any authority about raising revenues whatsoever.”
Brophy, however, says his proposal is about protecting taxpayers and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“This will stop the sneaky tactics used by tax-happy politicians who purposely masquerade a tax increase as a fee in order to bypass TABOR,” he said.