What's more surprising than Andrew Romanoff becoming Colorado's House speaker? His revenue-reform success.Last summer, as Colorado's Republican legislative leadership was coming to grips with the fact that it had failed to address a looming fiscal nightmare for state government, the leader of the minority Democrats in the House floated an idea: Ask the voters to let the state keep more of its revenues, Andrew Romanoff suggested, in exchange for lowering their tax rate. It was a genre-bending notion, coming from a Democrat, and GOP leaders gave it a respectful hearing.
That was before Romanoff found himself in a position guaranteed to attract attention, respectful and otherwise: He is now speaker of the Colorado House. Voters last November jettisoned the GOP majority in both chambers, giving Democrats control of the entire legislature for the first time since 1961. So when Romanoff put his idea into play as actual legislation, the politics surrounding it got a great deal more complicated.
The problem Colorado faces is a 1992 constitutional limit on revenues, known as the "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights," or TABOR, that says coffers can only increase based on the previous year's revenues. This is fine when the economy is growing, but like most states, Colorado has weathered several years of steep declines in tax revenues. Now that the economy is picking up, TABOR keeps it from making up lost ground, particularly in funding higher education and maintaining the state's infrastructure. "We're in this goofy predicament," says John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University. "If something isn't done, the state will have to cut more out of existing programs while at the same time we'll be sending out tax rebates."
It was, in part, voters' unhappiness with legislative inaction that led to the Democratic takeover last fall, and crafting a way out is at the top of the new leadership's agenda. Romanoff's measure, which in essence asks voters to give up their TABOR refunds, became their vehicle.
Romanoff, 38, assumed the speakership bearing a reputation for being both a wonk--"There are people who like the game and strategy," says Straayer, "but that's not Andrew; he likes policy"--and disarmingly open to working with Republicans. "I'm a Democrat and probably always will be," Romanoff says, "but I never thought my party had some monopoly on good ideas. I've always thought it would be quite some coincidence if we managed to stumble into the right position on every issue."
His dedication to that notion got a workout as his proposal made its way through the legislative process. Although a handful of Republican senators signed on right away, no GOP members of the House did so. Meanwhile, Republican Governor Bill Owens accepted the idea in principle, but only if Romanoff's TABOR provision lasted half the time Romanoff wanted. The Senate eventually resolved the face-off, and Coloradoans will vote on the resulting proposal in November.