When Colorado voters enshrined the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights into the state constitution in 1992, it had a simple premise: If lawmakers want to raise taxes or issue debt, they should ask voters for permission.

In practice, lawmakers rarely ask. But that hasn’t stopped them from charging Coloradans billions more for government services and borrowing costs anyway.

Designed to impose fiscal discipline on government, the amendment known as TABOR also sets a cap on spending growth each year. But 25 years later, policymakers on both sides of the aisle say Colorado government finance has instead become an increasingly complicated exercise in sidestepping those restraints.

Can’t raise taxes without a public vote? Charge a fee, instead. Want to plug a hole in the transportation budget? Borrow against the equity of government buildings.

“It gives voters the impression that we’re playing games,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the liberal Bell Policy Center. “And they’re right — we are playing games.”

These workarounds are legal — many have been explicitly authorized by state courts. But they have wide-ranging consequences for Coloradans.

In the TABOR era, state tax rates have gone down, but fees have increased, shifting a higher share of the cost of public services to low- and middle-income residents.

Meanwhile, the state seems to lurch from one funding crisis to the next. Some years, it’s deep cuts to schools or infrastructure. This year, it was a narrowly avoided bid to cut $528 million for hospitals.

Despite growing frustration with its side effects, don’t expect TABOR to go away anytime soon. At this point, experts say the landmark constitutional amendment is so woven into the state’s political fabric — and so popular with the general public — that unraveling its web of restrictions would be much easier said than done.

But there’s a common theme in the face of growing spending needs and deteriorating sources of revenue: the preferred policy solution at the state Capitol is frequently whatever doesn’t require approval at the ballot box.

Tangle of TABOR: Exhibit A

Look no further than last session’s Senate Bill 267 to understand the convoluted policies that this creates.

The far-reaching measure exempted a $264 million hospital provider fee from the TABOR spending cap, raised pot taxes to pay for a business tax credit, doubled Medicaid prescription co-pays and called for $1.9 billion in borrowing for roads — all without a vote of the public.

To many on the right, these sorts of workarounds are sacrilege — an elaborate subversion of the intent of TABOR.

“What’s always coming up is ‘How do we do this without respecting the taxpayers enough to put it to a public vote?’ That’s all it is,” says Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank.

The sweeping hospital-provider fee reclassification is the most recent example, but it’s far from the only one. And it’s not just Democrats who employ these workarounds.

  • In 2003, the Republican-led legislature authorized $130 million in a mortgagelike arrangement known as a certificate of participation to pay for a new prison — the sort of project that, if funded by bonds, would have had to go to a vote of the people. The prison, completed in 2010, sits empty today, but taxpayers were left on the hook for $208 million in payments, with interest.
  • In 2004, the legislature under Republican Gov. Bill Owens created the College Opportunity Fund, which effectively exempted the growing cost of public universities from state revenue limits under TABOR. That freed the state to raise tuition, while clearing out room under the cap for general state tax revenue to grow.
  • In 2009, Democrats passed FASTER, a series of fee hikes on vehicle registrations. The fees now generate around $200 million annually for transportation projects.
  • In 2010, the Democratic-controlled legislature under Gov. Bill Ritter repealed a series of sales-tax exemptions, now derisively referred to among conservatives as the “dirty dozen.” The result: more than $100 million in additional revenue annually, without increasing the sales tax rate.

“All of those are workaround gimmicks,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who specializes in legislative politics. “I just think in the aggregate, it’s a terrible way to make policy. And TABOR has triggered it.”

“Nickeled and dimed”

For the typical Coloradan, the most tangible consequence of these workarounds has been an explosion in fees.

According to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of U.S. Census data, Colorado has the nation’s third-highest reliance on “service charges” — a broad category that includes park fees, student tuition and textbook sales, and patient charges at public hospitals.