Our state is in a heap of trouble, boys

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By Greg Romberg

During a series of commercials for Dodge Challengers in the early 1970s, a rural sheriff who usually said, “Boy, you’re in a heap of trouble,” stopped Challenger drivers because they must have been speeding in a car that looked so hot. As I read the latest report of the University of Denver’s Center for Colorado’s Economic Future, I found myself thinking all future residents of Colorado share the drivers’ dilemma. We are definitely in a heap of trouble.
The report, which was released last week after months of study, suggests that, without a fundamental change in how we both raise and spend general-fund tax dollars, by fiscal 2023-24, Colorado will be able to pay for nothing more than public schools, health care and prisons. There will be no money left for anything else.
Think about the consequences of that conclusion. No state support for higher education. No state court system. No child protective services. No youth corrections. No State Patrol or state crime lab. If we continue down our current path, we’ll be $3.1 billion short of meeting even the most basic needs of our state government. The consequences of eliminating these programs and dealing with the resultant chaos are beyond contemplation.
Much like the debt-ceiling debate we recently lived through in Washington, the DU study suggests that we cannot weather this storm simply by cutting government services. We don’t provide enough services to be able to solve this structural deficit just through cuts. The report concludes that we must evaluate the services we provide and the reasonable ways to pay for them. Meeting the structural problems our current system puts onto future generations without a complete and thorough analysis of both ways to save money and ways to increase revenues ensures that Colorado government will be unable to meet even its most rudimentary needs in the very near future.
The DU study, which is the second of a multi-part effort, lays out a variety of options on both the spending and revenue sides to allow both policy-makers and the general public to hone their thoughts on these important matters. It also raises important questions about the need and efficiencies of additional layers of government while also raising questions about appropriate roles and levels of spending for state and local governments in Colorado.
Perhaps of most value, the report is structured in ways that allow anyone with an interest to review and analyze the data and to see how changing the state’s tax rates and base and other tax policies will impact the gap between state spending and revenues.
The study and its links to test different scenarios can be found on the website for The Center for Colorado’s Economic Future and clicking on the links for “Financing Colorado’s Future.”  
We are in a heap of trouble. Until we collectively recognize the problem and work for a thoughtful, comprehensive solution, it can only get worse.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.