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The National Republican Congressional Committee is running an ad branding Colorado state Sen. Morgan Carroll as a tax-and-spend Democrat.
Carroll is challenging Rep. Mike Coffman, a four-term Republican incumbent in the 6th Congressional District, a crescent-shaped swath of Denver suburbs considered one of the country’s most competitive swing districts.
The dark, grainy ad begins with an image of the U.S. Capitol building and the narrator saying, "Washington has a spending problem -- and Morgan Carroll would make it worse."
"In the (Colorado) Legislature, Carroll racked up $11 billion in new spending, nearly doubling the state budget," the narrator continues.
For this fact-check, we’re focusing on the claim that "Carroll racked up $11 billion dollars in new spending, nearly doubling the state budget," making it sound like she played a key role in the increase.
In support of its claim, the NRCC provided documentation showing that when Morgan became a Colorado House member in 2004, the total state budget was $14 billion. The budget grew to $25 billion by 2015 -- and Carroll voted for that budget, NRCC noted.
To evaluate the accuracy of the ad’s statement, let’s start with a brief primer on Colorado tax history.
Colorado lawmakers are restricted by law in how much they can increase the state budget.
In 1992, Colorado voters approved a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, popularly known as TABOR, a constitutional amendment designed to restrain growth in government. As PolitiFact previously reported, the measure said the government can't spend tax money collected under existing tax rates if revenues grow faster than inflation and population. Instead, the government had to rebate that money to taxpayers. These rebates applied to many types of taxes and business fees, but it primarily affected income and sales taxes. TABOR also required any tax increases to be approved by voters.
When the 2001-03 recession hit, TABOR compounded a state government fiscal crisis because of it’s so-called "ratchet effect." As the downturn caused state revenues to drop below the previous year’s spending, TABOR’s rules restricted the government’s spending growth to that lower baseline and state revenues plunged -- even as Colorado’s economic growth rebounded.
By 2005, many people believed the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights was hurting basic services, particularly education. So voters were asked to approve Referendum C, allowing government to stop refunding excess revenues for the next five years and permanently eliminating the ratchet effect. The measure drew bipartisan support from Colorado's elected leaders, including then Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. Anti-tax groups vehemently opposed the measure, saying it was a betrayal of TABOR.
The NRCC ad hammers Carroll for raising taxes, citing her vote -- along with a majority of the state Legislature -- to place Referendum C on the ballot. But voters approved Referendum C with 52 percent of the vote, allowing the state to keep about $3.7 billion in revenue that otherwise would have been refunded to taxpayers under TABOR.
We looked closer at the claim that Carroll "racked up $11 billion dollars in new spending" by voting for the $25 billion budget in 2015.
It’s important to note that about one-third of that $25 billion is federal money, over which state lawmakers have little control. Another 30 percent comes from "cash funds," which is money from fines, fees and limited taxes that are allocated by statute to specific programs, including transportation and health care.
Lawmakers exercise most of their control over the state’s general fund, which was $9.6 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year -- or 38.4 percent of the overall budget.
Yet Carroll did vote for the Senate conference committee’s budget bill, which passed on a bipartisan 31-2 vote. What the NRCC ad doesn’t mention is that Republicans control the Senate -- not Democrats like Carroll.
Both Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican Senate leaders praised the bipartisan collaboration on the $25 billion budget that was described as "reasonable, responsible and delivered on time," by Sen. Kent Lambert, the Republican chairman of the the Joint Budget Committee.
Outside observers questioned the ad’s suggestion that one lawmaker is responsible for racking up an $11 billion increase in the budget over 11 years in a Legislature that totals 100 lawmakers and experienced changes in which party controlled the governorship, and both legislative chambers during that time.
"This claim strikes me as a huge stretch," Seth Masket, chairman of the political science department at the University of Denver, told PolitiFact. "If Carroll is guilty of this, then so is everyone else who served in the Legislature during that time."
"Lawmakers are restricted in their ability to increase the budget," he added. "TABOR restricts growth in government spending to where spending was the previous fiscal year, plus inflation and population growth. But basically, the Joint Budget Committee in the Legislature puts together a budget resolution, and Carroll, along with a majority of legislators, voted to approve it."
The NRCC said Morgan Carroll "racked up $11 billion in new spending," implying that she had a key role in "nearly doubling the state budget."
Carroll did vote for a $25 billion budget in 2015, but the Democrat was joined by a vast majority of lawmakers in a Republican-controlled Senate. The budget’s passage was hailed as a bipartisan accomplishment by both parties.
Colorado lawmakers are restricted by law in how much they can increase the state budget. While the NRCC ad focuses on the total budget, lawmakers’ control is largely limited to the general fund, which in 2015 was 38.4 percent of the overall budget.
The NRCC’s misleading ad exaggerates Carroll’s responsibility for the budget increase. We rule the statement Mostly False.
Denver Post, "Fact-checking TABOR ads," October 18, 2005
PolitiFact, "Jane Norton supported Referendum C -- so did the voters," July 9, 2010
Associated Press, "Gov. Hickenlooper signs $25 billion Colorado budget, " April 24, 2015
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "A Formula for Decline: Lessons from Colorado for States Considering TABOR," March 15, 2010
Bell Policy Center, "Referendum C"
Colorado House Conference Committee vote, Referendum C (HB05-1194), Colorado House Journal, Page 1159-1160, April 18, 2005
Colorado Senate Conference Committee vote, state budget bill (SB15-234), Colorado Senate Journal, Page 818, April 17, 2015
Colorado Joint Budget Committee, "APPROPRIATIONS REPORT: Fiscal Year 2015-16," Chart: Operating Budget For Fiscal Years 2005-06 through 2015-16, Page 12.
Colorado Fiscal Institute, "Colorado State Budget Basics," 2015
Colorado Senate Republicans news release, "‘Long Bill" Crosses the Finish Line," April 24, 2015
Interview via email with NRCC spokesman, Zach Hunter, on September 21, 2016
Interview with Drew Godinich, Carroll campaign spokesman, on September 22, 2016
Interview via email with Seth Masket, chairman of the political science department at University of Denver, on September 23, 2016
Interview with Natalie Mullis, chief economist for the Colorado Legislative Council, on September 26, 2016
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