Jerry Kopel

When Colorado was in the "boom" times, Gov. Bill Owens delighted to quote from Governing Magazine about how our state, along with Arizona and Nevada, were the states with the fastest growth in business and population.

Governing Magazine is a monthly aimed at state, city and county governments. It's read by almost every elected official and many appointed officials who consider local and state government their home.

But one can't blame Gov. Owens for not quoting from the February, 2003 issue of Governing which is devoted to the tax situation in the 50 states, ranking them as to adequacy of revenue, fairness to taxpayers, and management of the system.

It's possible for a state to get four stars in each category. As the magazine explains:

Four stars: The state is not perfect (none are). But it does very well in the area under consideration. Three stars: Although there may be room for improvement, the state is essentially performing well. Two stars: The state could continue to function as it currently does into the foreseeable future, but there are clear elements to the tax system that would benefit from change. One star: The area under review needs some kind of dramatic reform.

Colorado gets one star in adequacy of revenue, and two stars each in fairness to taxpayers and management of the system. The five stars puts Colorado tied for 47th place with California, Illinois, Mississippi and Texas, and ahead of only Nevada, Alabama, and Tennessee.

And Colorado is 46th in state tax revenues as a percent of personal income, ahead only of Tennessee, Texas, South Dakota, and New Hampshire. Governing reports: Texas has no personal income tax; Tennessee has no "broad based" income tax and it relies heavily on a sales tax; South Dakota has no individual income tax; and New Hampshire has no "broad based" income or sales tax.

Quoting from Governing as to how we got where we are: "The first TABOR refund checks were issued in 1998, and since then the state has handed back about $3.2 billion through 19 different refund mechanisms, mostly related to the personal income tax.

"One might think that the refunds would lessen the demand for conventional tax cuts, but the Colorado legislature opted for those as well. During the past few years, before the high-tech collapse began eating into revenues, sales and income taxes were cut by $433 million in a combination of more than 20 bills.

"Then, last year, corporate income tax receipts fell a whopping 46 percent and individual income taxes, which comprise about 51 percent of the state's tax revenues, declined by more than 15 percent. Moreover, the state still had to pay residents about $927 million they were owed for the 2001 surplus."

Governing quotes Republican Sen. Ron Teck on the TABOR amendment. "In hindsight I wouldn't vote for it again. It ties the hands of the representatives. It's like trying to change the spark plugs on a car that's moving down the road at 90 miles an hour."

So who is on top? According to Governing, it's Delaware which rates 11 stars out of a possible 12. The report on that state admits Delaware is viewed as a buccaneer, helping corporate firms evade taxation in other states "especially through the exemption of income from holding company subsidiaries", and attracting financial companies and banks by removing its usury limits on interest.

Well, buccaneer is a polite way to say (according to the Oxford Dictionary) a pirate and unscrupulous adventurer. Governing should have included one other category: How equitably does a state treat its fellow-states? Delaware would rate a zero.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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