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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan July 26, 2010

Jane Norton supported Referendum C -- so did the voters

It's not everyday a candidate personally appears in an ad to call her opponent gutless, but that's what Jane Norton did in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Colorado.

"Seen those TV ads attacking me? They're paid for by a shady interest group doing the bidding of Ken Buck," she said in reaction to the ad paid for by Americans for Job Security. "You'd think Ken would be man enough to do it himself," Norton says in her own ad.

"Here's the truth: In state government, I cut budgets, cut programs and reduced staff," Norton continues. "Ken Buck's Office? His spending skyrocketed by 40 percent. We need a senator who's actually cut spending, and has the backbone to stand her ground."

The "shady interest group" Norton refers to is an outfit called Americans for Job Security. What they had to say about her wasn't so nice, either.

"Our country is at the brink," a narrator says. "Colorado families and workers need relief -- yet Jane Norton supported the largest tax hike in Colorado history, costing us billions. And Jane Norton's record on government spending? The state bureaucracy she managed grew by $43 million in just three years. Record taxes and reckless spending has cost Colorado jobs. Call Jane Norton, tell her no more tax hikes and big government spending."

Norton is a former lieutenant governor who got early backing from Republican Party leaders. Buck, on the other hand, is the Weld County District Attorney and a former U.S. attorney and has received backing from the tea party movement.

There are a lot of facts to sort through here. In this check, we're going to look at the tax increase charge against Norton. We'll examine Americans for Job Security's claim about an increasing bureaucracy in another report, and Norton's charges against Buck in still another report.

Americans for Job Security isn't a typical political action committee. It's organized as a business league 501(c)(6), which means its ads are limited to issue advocacy and that the group isn't required to publicly disclose its donors. The group's website says it favors "free markets and pro-paycheck public policy," and it has a reputation for working against unions.

Still, it was fairly easy for us to reach the president of Americans for Job Security, Stephen DeMaura and ask him about the group's claims, specifically that Norton "supported the largest tax hike in Colorado history, costing us billions." He said the group has not coordinated with Buck and that Norton should address the ad's substance. "Rather than wasting time with empty attack ads, she should respond to the claims and discuss them," DeMaura said.

Featured Fact-check

What Americans for Job Security calls the "largest tax hike in Colorado history" is actually subject to debate; some people contend it wasn't a tax increase at all. Let's start with a brief primer on Colorado tax history.

Our story begins in 1992, when Colorado voters approved a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, popularly known as TABOR. 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.

By 2005, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights had curtailed government spending to the point that some people felt basic services were being hurt, particularly for education. So voters were asked to approve Referendum C, allowing government to stop refunding excess revenues for the next five years. The measure drew bipartisan support from Colorado's elected leaders, including then Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, as well as his lieutenant governor -- Jane Norton. Anti-tax groups vehemently opposed the measure, saying it was a betrayal of TABOR. But voters approved Referendum C with 52 percent of the vote.

Norton explained her support for the referendum in March 2010 to Fox 31 KDVR of Denver. "Referendum C is actually the Taxpayers Bill of Rights in action," Norton said. "TABOR allows for people to vote. And in this case, it was: do you want your tax refund to go -- it was a five-year time out -- and 52 percent of the people said yes, we will forgo our tax refund to help pay for essential services." Her campaign also told Denver's ABC 7NEWS that the referendum was "an unfortunate consequence of the worst recession in state history. Passing it meant the state did not have to close colleges, let prisoners out early, or cut services to the elderly."

For our fact-check, we also wanted to determine whether Referendum C was actually the "largest" increase in tax revenues in Colorado history. We wondered, for example, if Referendum C was proportionally larger than Colorado's adoption of a 4 percent income tax in 1937.

We looked, but we couldn't find any analysis comparing the two measures. Natalie Mullis, chief economist for Colorado Legislative Council staff, which provides policy analysis for the Colorado Assembly, said she's gotten the same question from Colorado officials, but no definitive answer exists. She did say that Referendum C was the only significant increase in tax revenues since 1992, when TABOR passed.

The Americans for Job Security ad says in a graphic that Referendum C raised $6 billion. We asked Mullis about this; she said that the number was likely based on projections before the economic downturn started in 2008. The measure has actually generated about $3.7 billion, all of that in the three years right after the bill was passed. There were no extra revenues generated for 2009 and 2010, she said, due to the economic downturn.

Americans for Job Security said that "Jane Norton supported the largest tax hike in Colorado history." If the issue is just Referendum C, then yes, Norton supported it. But there are a number of qualifiers to that "yes": The evidence is not conclusive that it's the largest tax increase in Colorado history, though certainly it's the largest in recent years. Also, technically speaking, the measure didn't increase tax rates -- it ended rebates, though that does mean less money in people's pockets. Finally, Norton supported a ballot issue on which Colorado voters had the final say and ultimately approved. Given these facts, we rate this statement Half True.

Our Sources

Fox 31, Latest ad from out-of-state group attacks Norton, July 12, 2010

Colorado Department of Treasury, Constitutional Provisions (Referendum C), accessed July 21, 2010

Colorado Legislative Council, History of Colorado Income Tax Rates, July 19, 2010

ABC 7 News, Fact or Fiction: Ad Targets Jane Norton, July 19, 2010

The Denver Post, Owens tenure coming to an end, Dec. 10, 2006

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, A Formula for Decline: Lessons from Colorado for States Considering TABOR, March 15, 2010

The Cato Institute, Dispelling the Myths: The Truth about TABOR and Referendum C, Oct. 24, 2005

Fox 31, Exclusive: Senate candidate Jane Norton defends record on spending, March 9, 2010

Interview with Natalie Mullis, chief economist for Colorado Legislative Council staff

Interview with Stephen DeMaura, president of Americans for Job Security

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Jane Norton supported Referendum C -- so did the voters

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