In the majority at the Capitol in 2003 and looking for ways to balance the budget, Republicans settled on a way to cut close to $60 million annually: suspending a property-tax break for seniors.
But they needed Democratic votes and, only after a weekend of bipartisan deal-making, the legislature suspended the Senior Homestead Exemption for three years.
Flash forward to 2010, and Republicans — including some of the same ones who voted to suspend the tax break in 2003 — say Democrats are trying to raise taxes on seniors by suspending the break yet again.
“You know what the difference is?” said former Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood. “They (Republicans) were in the majority then, and they were responsible for the budget. Now, they’re not responsible.”
Anderson should know. As Senate majority leader in 2003, she brokered the compromise with then-Senate Minority Leader Joan Fitz-Gerald of Jefferson County.
“We took a lot of flak when we did it the first time,” Anderson said. “We couldn’t pass the budget unless we got this done.
“But you didn’t have these caucus positions back then that you do now. Both sides voted for things for the good of the state.”
Passed by voters as a constitutional amendment in 2000, the tax break didn’t fully kick in until the 2002-03 budget, when about 120,000 seniors took advantage of it.
Then, faced with a $1 billion revenue shortfall, lawmakers suspended it for three years.
Starting in fiscal 2006-07, seniors got the tax break for three years, but in 2009, the now Democratic-led legislature — faced with a shortfall of more than $1 billion, suspended the tax break for one year, saving $90.4 million. And it was Republicans firing the flak then.
Republican Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray voted to eliminate the break as a House member in 2003. As a senator, Brophy voted against nixing the break for one year in 2009 and voted against the proposed two-year suspension this year, which passed the Senate.
Remembering the 2003 vote, Brophy said he e-mailed fellow Republicans at one point in the current budget downturn and told them to watch what they said, lest history be recalled. He also said he’s tried not to refer to a suspension of the tax break as a tax increase.
But in a January guest column for The Denver Post, he wrote, “Gov. Bill Ritter and majority Democrats (in 2009) levied $1 billion of new taxes and fees on Colorado families, including a $90 million property tax increase on Colorado seniors.”
Asked about the disconnect, Brophy said, “I thought I had been very careful about my rhetoric around that issue, for obvious reasons.”
He says he regrets his 2003 vote.
“I think you have to be intellectually honest and say that when you’re in the majority, you either do things or get talked into doing things you don’t want to,” he said.
Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, also was in the House in 2003 and voted to suspend the tax break. As a senator, he has twice voted against a suspension.
Asked to explain his reversal, Harvey said he voted against nixing the break this time around “for philosophical reasons because of the way the Democrats are handling the budget.”
“That may be an inconsistency,” he said, “but it’s an honest answer.”
Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, also voted to suspend the tax break in 2003 as a House member. But in 2009 and in 2010, she voted against lifting the exemption.
“It is a much more dire situation for seniors in 2009-2010 than it was in 2003,” she said.
Despite her 2003 vote, Spence helped Senate Republicans bash Democrats over the issue last year.
“Suspending or repealing that important allowance in state law would be an insult to the very Coloradans who have done so much for our state,” Spence said in a video made by Republicans.
In all, seven Republicans, all of them now in the Senate, voted in favor of the suspension in 2003 and against it later. Meanwhile, Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, voted for the idea in 2003 as a House member, against it in 2009 as a senator and then was excused the day of this year’s vote.
And House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, voted in favor of the suspension in 2003 and opposed it in 2009. This year’s proposal still awaits a recorded vote in the House.
But Republicans are not the only ones who have switched sides on the issue.
Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, voted for the 2009 suspension yet voted against the 2003 proposal.
“I did?” Pommer asked. “I don’t remember that. I thought I voted for it.”
Pommer said he likely voted against the suspension then because he was a freshman and leadership was trying to protect his seat.
House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, voted against the suspension in 2003 but supported it in 2009.
“I didn’t have to vote for it” in 2003, he said. “They didn’t need my vote.”
Eight Democrats who voted against the 2003 suspension voted in favor of the plan in 2009, and two of those have voted in favor of it this year in the Senate.
This year’s bill to suspend the exemption for two years and save $188.1 million over two years, Senate Bill 190, is expected to reach the House floor Monday afternoon.
The Senior Homestead Exemption
•Was approved by voters as a constitutional amendment in 2000.
•Is offered to people 65 and older who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years. It exempts 50 percent of the first $200,000 of the actual value of the homes.
•Local school districts and other governments still get the full property taxes levied on seniors’ homes, but the state picks up the tab for the portion that qualifying homeowners don’t pay.
•The amendment also allows the legislature to reduce the tax break or fully zero it out in any given year or multiple years.
Senior tax-break switcheroo
Forty-one Republicans and 19 Democrats voted to eliminate the Senior Homestead Exemption for three years in 2003. In 2009, only one Republican in the House and one in the Senate voted to eliminate the exemption for one year. This year, only one Senate Republican, Al White of Hayden, has voted for a bill to suspend the tax break for two years, and the measure awaits House consideration, where no Republican votes in favor are expected. These lawmakers have changed their votes over the years: