The political arm of the Koch brothers' conservative network is asking Colorado lawmakers to sign a pledge
to protect TABOR, an effort designed to block Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper's top legislative priority.
The Americans for Prosperity petition intensifies the political battle on a major budget issue before the 2016 legislative session and helps explain why Republicans are shifting their tone on the discussion about the hospital provider fee.
Hickenlooper is pushing legislation to convert the billion-dollar fee program to an enterprise fund that makes it exempt from the revenue caps in the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
The move would give state lawmakers more money to spend in the next budget year, as taxpayer refunds are contributing to spending cuts in education and other areas. But the conversion to an enterprise fund would negate taxpayer refunds in the foreseeable future, and critics suggest that the move weakens TABOR.
The organization, funded by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, both of whom own homes in Colorado, began circulating the petition in late December.
The petition reads: "As a member of the Colorado legislature, I pledge that I will not vote to undermine the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights by creating a special exemption for the Hospital Provider Fee."
Hickenlooper's proposal died in the Republican-led state Senate in 2015, but lawmakers discussed a deal with the governor's office to exempt the fee in exchange for dedicated spending on roads and schools.
Earlier this week — a week before the session starts — Republican lawmakers indicated such a deal is dead.
"One of AFP Colorado's top priorities this year is to help stop this back-door dismantling of TABOR," said Michael Fields, the organization's state director. With a roughly $27 billion budget, Fields added, "state government is lacking focus, not money."
In an interview Wednesday, Hickenlooper expressed surprise at the development and suggested there are no other immediate options to ease the state's budget crunch.
"My intention is to reach out to them and say, 'What are the alternative plans that are going to generate the revenue we need to move this state forward?' " he told reporters, who were removed from a publicly noticed speech in which he previewed his legislative priorities to a prominent business group. "So far I haven't seen a place where there is sufficient revenue to build the kind of infrastructure this state needs to compete."
Hickenlooper suggested efforts to take the question to the voters on the 2016 ballot or ask for a tax hike for transportation wouldn't win approval.
"People are so unhappy with how slowly wages are rising, how they view the world situation — they just don't want to give any more money in any way to government, and I think long-term that hurts us," he said.
AFP's pledge emulates similar petitions from conservative groups on raising taxes and the federal health care law. Fields would not disclose the names of the lawmakers who signed the pledge.
Hickenlooper expressed dismay about the petition drive.
"Those pledges are a big part of the Republican Party's efforts to maintain discipline and sort of toe the line to the most conservative principles of the party," he said. "I think they've been very effective."