The Taxman

How Douglas Bruce And The Taxpayer’s Bill Of Rights Conquered Colorado

Chapter I
Chapter II-Chapter III

  • By
  • Nathaniel Minor
  • Rachel Estabrook
  • Ben Markus

The revolution wasn’t supposed to happen. Colorado voters had shot down crusades for smaller government three times before, in 1986, 1988 and 1990. As the first Tuesday of November 1992 drew near, public support for Douglas Bruce’s political baby, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, was waning.

But a quarter century ago, on election night, the landlord from Colorado Springs stood at a podium in Denver ready to declare victory. Under red, white and blue balloons and streamers, he held a two-day-old copy of The Denver Post above his head. The broadsheet’s above-the-fold headline blared that his ballot measure was behind in the polls. With a wide grin on his face, he crumpled it into a ball and threw it down with gusto.

“The liars lost,” Bruce told the ballroom full of cheering supporters. “The people won.”

Douglas Bruce
Douglas Bruce is the father of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

Bruce, a political outsider, won too. He and his group of anti-tax activists turned aside a who’s who coalition of Democrats, business leaders and even some Republicans. Those politicians had forecast doomsday if the voters embraced Bruce’s proposal to put tighter limits on government taxing and spending. Schools would close, they said. Businesses would leave the state. One opponent even wondered if police would be able to protect Pope John Paul II, who was coming to Denver the very next year.

Doomsday hasn’t come. But Bruce’s victory — or, as he would describe it, the people’s victory — changed Colorado in ways no one saw coming. No one, maybe, except for Douglas Bruce.

“The crowd went wild.”

Twenty-five years later, Bruce flashes a smile and even chokes up a bit remembering that night. Now 68, Bruce still lives in Colorado Springs. You might catch sight of him on the roads, behind the wheel of an aging Honda Accord sporting a license plate that reads “Mr TABOR” — the acronym for his most consequential achievement.

“I know I did something good to help people,” Bruce said. “Even if they’re not grateful. Even if they want to call me names.”

His enemies — and he has many of them — have called him plenty of names just in interviews in the past year: Zealot. Slum lord. Biggest a**hole in the room. Those same critics also acknowledge two key components of Bruce’s character: intellectual brilliance and dogged determination. Both critics and supporters say TABOR would never have passed without Bruce and his unique character.

The sweeping measure took away legislators’ ability to raise taxes without approval from a majority of voters, and it limits how quickly government revenues can grow. Experts declared it the most restrictive tax and expenditure limitation in the country. Since voters added TABOR to the Colorado Constitution 25 years ago, it’s become a boogeyman that politicians blame fiscal problems on.

Colorado today has “one of the five best economies in the United States,” said former Gov. Roy Romer, who fought Bruce tooth and nail during the campaigns for TABOR. Then Romer drops the other shoe. “We have one of the five worst education systems.” The Democrat pins that disparity on a lack of funding partially caused by the procedural machinations of TABOR.

“You can’t say you’re free if the government can take away everything you have without your permission.”
— Douglas Bruce

While tax limitation measures in other states are merely speed bumps, Bruce designed TABOR to be more like a faulty cruise control. It slowed government growth, making sure it would never be able to grow as fast as the economy. It wasn’t immediately obvious, when you looked at the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights as it was written. And many opponents of the law say it wasn’t obvious at all to voters who passed it in 1992.

“It’s replete with little side angles and nuances,” Henry Sobanet, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget director, said of Bruce’s nearly 1,800-word document. “It’s more like a three-dimensional understanding of taxes and an ability to interact with it with language. That’s what you see with his work.”

Douglas Bruce, a man dedicated to disrupting government growth, was once a Democrat. He grew up in Southern California in the 1960s and graduated from Hollywood High School. His mother and grandfather were both Democrats; Bruce said he still has his grandfather’s portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his basement. Eventually though, his compass would turn in a different direction than the New Dealer who greatly expanded the scope of the federal government. He was taken with California’s then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, and anti-tax godfather Howard Jarvis, who in 1978 convinced the Golden State to limit property taxes through Proposition 13.

Bruce traces his conservative ideals back to the Bill of Rights and its stated goal of limiting government. He carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his shirt pocket, ever ready to talk about its protections of press, petition, religion, guns, quartering soldiers, search and seizure. “You can’t say you’re free if the government can take away everything you have without your permission,” Bruce said, summing up his view of the document.

After earning his law degree at the University of Southern California, he started his career in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office as an assistant prosecutor. By the late 1970s, he was ready to leave. He attacked the question of where to live in the same meticulous way he later observed the levers of taxation. He researched cities’ demographics, water, climate, taxes and even bugs to figure out where to go. He took long road trips for more research. Finally, his third trip took him to Colorado.

“It was at dusk when I got to Pueblo,” Bruce said. “And I looked at that from the interstate and said, ‘Nah, no way.’ ”

Farther north up Interstate 25, he hit Colorado Springs after dark. “I woke up in the morning and got out, opened the door of the motel, and bam! There was Pikes Peak,” Bruce said of the mountain that inspired “America the Beautiful.” He liked the city’s architecture, history and even its commercial-free classical radio station. And he loved the politics.

“No place is going to be conservative enough for me, but it was on the right side of the spectrum — literally,” Bruce quipped.

“Who’s in charge? We, the people, who earn the money, or the politicians who want to spend it?”
— Douglas Bruce

His newly adopted state had a long history of skepticism toward government that manifested in citizen-backed efforts to limit taxes. In 1936, Don C. Sowers, a University of Colorado Boulder professor, wrote that the Great Depression was the impetus for a property tax limitation effort on the ballot. “The overall tax limitation movement is of comparatively recent development, and may be said to be an outgrowth of the Depression period,” Sowers wrote. He criticized the measure as a ploy by property owners to shift the tax burden to more regressive income channels, like the sales tax. The measure failed miserably.

The tax limitation movement picked up steam through the 1970s, when four separate one-off measures appeared before Colorado’s voters. All lost decisively.

Ballot initiatives are often used by idealogues as a check on government, said Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who’s studied Douglas Bruce and the initiative process. “It’s, however, very difficult to do without some type of financial backing or without some type of corporate interest or without some type of national support network,” Smith said.

That was true in 1986, when citizens got a grassroots initiative to limit taxes on the state ballot just as Bruce arrived in Colorado Springs. Two peach farmers from Palisade, some 300 miles west of the Front Range, pushed a state constitutional amendment that would’ve required a public vote before taxes could be raised. John and Diane Cox wanted governments statewide to cut spending along with the Western Slope, which was suffering the aftershocks of the Black Sunday energy bust earlier in the decade.

John and Diane Cox
John and Diane Cox ran an anti-tax amendment in 1986 that was a precursor to Douglas Bruce’s TABOR. Here, they stand on their fruit farm near Palisade, Colo.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

“We’re thinking, ‘Hey, how come the government doesn’t have to suffer with the rest of us?’ ” John Cox said on a sunny morning at his farm, just over 30 years later. The Coxes have farmed fruit on the same patch of land since 1974, and share values of independence and personal responsibility with many of their neighbors on Colorado’s conservative Western Slope.

The Coxes had the backing of anti-tax groups, prominent furniture salesman Jake Jabs, and a former Republican state legislator among others. They were up against just about every powerful group in the state. An alliance of business, education and government interests outraised the anti-tax supporters by more than 12-to-1, according to Smith’s research.

The measure, Amendment 4, failed by a wide margin. The Coxes’ campaign would’ve drifted into obscurity were it not for its volunteer spokesman in El Paso County: Douglas Bruce.

Most true populist anti-tax movements are short lived, and that was nearly the case in Colorado. Fred Holden, a self-described freedom fighter who volunteered on the Coxes’ campaign, ran meetings to consider another ballot measure for 1988. Interest soon waned, he said, and the number of attendees dwindled from about a dozen to just a few. One of those who remained was Douglas Bruce.

Holden and the others around the table soon discovered Bruce’s dogged and scrupulous attention to detail. “We found out he’s a lot smarter,” Holden said. “Then we found out he was an attorney.”

Bruce insists he didn’t try to take over what was left of the movement. “I didn’t say, ‘Here I am, appoint me your new messiah.’ That would be ridiculous,” he said. But that’s exactly what he was to Diane Cox. “He was truly an answer to prayer,” she said.

The group asked Bruce to draft a new amendment. At his dining room table in Colorado Springs, he hammered out a document much more comprehensive than Jarvis’ California Proposition 13, which solely limited property taxes. That measure has succeeded in keeping property taxes low, but governments simply raised fees and sales taxes to make up the lost revenue.

Bruce’s amendment was a kitchen sink. Its most important provisions would cut taxes, require voter approval for any new tax increase, and restrict how much money governments could spend. That limit would only go up with changes in inflation and population growth, which purposefully didn’t account for productivity increases or overall booms in the economy. In a news conference at the state Capitol, in July 1988, Bruce described the previous failed Cox amendment as “just a tap on the shoulder.” His new Taxpayer Bill of Rights, he claimed, would be “a rap across the knuckles with a ruler.”

The political establishment that had crushed the 1986 tax-limitation campaign rumbled to life again. It was led by Democratic Gov. Roy Romer, who holds a view of government that’s antithetical to Bruce’s: While Bruce sees the state as an evil entity that needs to be constrained, to Romer it’s a powerful tool for good. That view was born of his start in Holly, Colorado, a tiny town on the Eastern Plains, during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. “I remember my family hanging wet sheets in our house to keep the dust out,” Romer recalled.

His career-long passion for public education can be traced to childhood. A girl in his high school class “who was smarter than I was,” Romer said, couldn’t go to college. She had to work to support her family, who Romer said was the poorest in town. “Education is a key attribute to getting a job you want,” he said.

Roy Romer
Roy Romer was governor of Colorado from 1987 to 1999.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

Romer saw Bruce’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights as a direct threat to the state’s ability to teach its children. He worried voters would buy what Bruce was selling, and tried to head it off; Romer told a group of high schoolers that government needed to cut frills, like cleaning band uniforms after every football game, to save money. The state predicted schools would lose more than $100 million in one year if TABOR passed.

“I saw this man who had a flame in his eye,” Romer said of Bruce. “He was over the top.”

The governor gave up to nine speeches a day against TABOR, newspapers at the time reported. “Every rational bone in my body says this is a very, very bad mistake,” he told The Denver Post. “You’re going to rip the quality out of Colorado.” And in an ad hominem attack that predated the vitriolic 2016 presidential campaign by nearly three decades, Romer likened Bruce to a terrorist who wanted to throw a bomb into the workings of government.

Asked recently why he used such a pejorative, Romer laughed. He couldn’t recall saying it decades ago, he said, but admitted it’s the type of expression he’d use. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for politicians to be calling their opponents ‘terrorists,’ ” Romer conceded. “I shouldn’t have used that. But Douglas Bruce did not have a balanced view of what I thought was good for the society.”

Like all the names hurled his way, Bruce took the insult in stride. He later carried business cards that announced, “Douglas E. Bruce, Terrorist.” The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 prompted him to drop the flippant sign of defiance. His new business cards read “Freedom Fighter.” Still, he isn’t impressed by Romer’s remorsefulness. “Thanks, Roy. A 25-year-old apology,” Bruce said. “He never apologized to me.”

Romer’s opposition coalition included the teachers’ union, business leaders and even prominent Republicans like state Senate President Ted Strickland. He told Colorado Public Radio, then known as KCFR-FM, that TABOR would be the “death knell of local government.” Moody’s threatened to downgrade the state’s credit rating, meaning residents would’ve had to pay more interest on government debt. TABOR was the rare threat draconian enough for these groups, usually at each other’s throats during elections, to fight on the same side.

That left Bruce and the other anti-tax activists largely on their own. Bruce loaned the campaign $50,000 from his own savings. “I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” he told the Post. But it wasn’t enough. Voters in 1988 shot it down, with 57 percent against.

The response was a defiant speech where Bruce blamed voters for missing a chance to give themselves more freedom. He couldn’t understand why his fellow Coloradans voted the way they did. “When the tax increases come, don’t bother calling me for a reaction,” he said. “I’ll give you your sound bite right now. Listen carefully. I. Told. You. So.”

Video courtesy of KUSA/9 News

Bruce and his allies tried again two years later. They made changes to the ballot measure to address critics’ charges, and stepped up their fundraising. Bruce had more backing from the conservative establishment as well, with GOP gubernatorial candidate John Andrews, Boulder businessman Vern Bickel and other prominent Republicans throwing their support behind the measure.

That still wasn’t enough. Bruce’s second try came up short, but only just — 51 percent for, 49 percent against. As he did after his first loss two years before, Bruce blamed the voters. They “did not fight back, but they timidly and gullibly surrendered to this blackmail,” he complained.

This is where the story of Douglas Bruce diverges from that of other anti-tax advocates, like John and Diane Cox, who moved on with their lives after losing. After the initial sting wore off, Bruce saw that he was getting closer to victory. “I saw the trajectory and I said, ‘The key to winning is persistence,’ ” Bruce said. “I had to keep the group together and say, ‘I know you’re disappointed, but we have to go ahead.’ ”

That wasn’t an easy thing to do. Fred Holden, who had worked on three straight campaigns, was ready to call it a day. “I didn’t have that kind of fortitude,” Holden said. “And then he called up and said, ‘I’ve got the next amendment started.’ [I thought,] Well, my gosh, [there goes] another two years of my life.”

Douglas Bruce with anti-tax donor list
Douglas Bruce holds up a list of major donors against limiting taxes in January 1993.
Courtesy Denver Public Library/Rocky Mountain News/Hal Stoelzle

The political establishment noticed Bruce’s upward trajectory, too. “We caught a silver bullet in our teeth yesterday,” Gov. Romer said after the 1990 election. The governor and legislative leaders promised they’d study tax structure and make changes to head off another ballot showdown.

The specter of another Bruce campaign haunted the legislature in 1991 and 1992. “The Colorado Springs tax watchdog, and the 49 percent vote he garnered for his tax-limitation Amendment 1 last fall, hung over every discussion involving money from January to May,” the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph wrote in May 1991. The Denver Post editorialized that the legislature would be to blame if TABOR were to pass. “If that happens, and we truly expect it may, the budget crisis will become the budget massacre — and the blood will be on the legislature’s hands.”

The legislature did pass a bill in 1991 that limited annual growth of the state general fund to 6 percent. But it was merely a statutory change, a future legislature could repeal it (and they did in 2009). Bruce demanded lawmakers write a tax limitation measure into the state constitution, making it much harder to repeal or adjust. He said only if that happened would he back off asking voters to make the change themselves.

Some legislators doubted that whatever actions they took would matter to Bruce. “If it somehow was going to stop Mr. Bruce from going forward I could understand your logic,” Rep. Gerald Kopel, a Democrat, said in May 1991 during a House debate over a potential constitutional amendment. “But that’s not going to happen. He’s too much of an egomaniac.”

Other legislators took Bruce’s threat personally, said then-Rep. Steve Arveschoug, a Republican from Pueblo who pushed a number of tax-limitation bills. “I tried to just stick to the message and that is ‘We need to be responsible and offer an alternative,’ ” he said of his work in the 1990s. But in the end, Arveschoug was rejected by a handful of votes. The legislature was unwilling to handcuff itself.

Many lawmakers correctly pointed out that the tax burden in Colorado was not particularly onerous. The state sales tax and corporate sales tax were among the lowest in the country, while the personal sales tax was about average. Only local property taxes were relatively high.

“On balance, Colorado taxes, state and local combined, are at the national mean,” two Colorado academics, Thomas Cronin and Robert Loevy, wrote in 1993. But that did not dissuade Bruce, who told The Denver Post in 1991: “It’s irrational to say that because other states are spending obscene amounts that we should feel shortchanged because our spending levels are only mildly pornographic.”

“I saw this man who had a flame in his eye. He was over the top.”
— Roy Romer

Polls from the time showed Coloradans were distrustful of government, no matter how middle-of-the-road their tax burden was. For many voters, surmised Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights wasn’t about taxes at all. It was about sending a message about who was in charge. Ballot issues, Smith said, are a “populist process in a way that, at least on the surface, gives individuals the sense that they are somehow taking back control.”

For Douglas Bruce himself, that was a key concept at the core of TABOR: “Who’s in charge? We, the people, who earn the money, or the politicians who want to spend it?”

Political experts sensed that 1992 was going to be different. “I viscerally and intuitively felt the ground changing out there,” said Eric Sondermann, who ran the 1988 and 1990 campaigns against Bruce. “In baseball terms, we had to get a hit every time at bat. Doug Bruce just had to get a hit once.”

And Bruce was about ready to swing again.

As Romer showed with his “terrorist” comment, Douglas Bruce has the uncanny ability to goad politicians into saying very un-politician-like things. For years, then-Secretary of State Natalie Meyer had, for the most part, avoided taking the bait despite numerous run-ins with Bruce.

That changed though, as Bruce was preparing to get his measure on the 1992 ballot. He’d turned in some 70,000 signatures to Meyer’s office, a requirement to qualify a ballot measure. The secretary of state promptly threw out a third of them. Her staff found that some of the people who’d signed Bruce’s petition — and some of those who carried the petitions — weren’t registered voters.

That left Bruce short of the nearly 50,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot. Incensed, he dubbed her “Meyer the Liar” and appealed her decision. A few weeks later, he held a press conference in the hallway just down from Meyer’s office — a move he’d made before. “I usually just ignored him,” said Meyer, now 87.

This time, though, was different.

Video courtesy of KCNC/CBS Denver

“The woman has obviously a mental deficiency,” Bruce told reporters.

“I have a what?” Meyers replied, doubling back to the gaggle of press who did their best to stifle laughter. “Doug, I think you’ve gone a little bit ballistic.”

Meyer now says she shouldn’t have taken Bruce’s bait. But she doesn’t apologize for defending herself either. “I was a lot of things, but I’ve never really thought I was mentally deficient,” she said.

To Bruce years later, Meyer was still just one more member of the establishment who didn’t want him to rein in the government. “Natalie Meyer is an evil woman,” Bruce said. “She’s not supposed to be an activist opposing and trying to subvert the citizens’ right to petition, which is what she did.” Meyer, a Republican with signed letters from President Ronald Reagan in her house, said she never took a stand on any initiative and flatly denied having it out for Bruce. “I haven’t had any vendettas in my life,” she said. “I don’t even know what they are.”

Natalie Meyer
Natalie Meyer was Colorado’s secretary of state from 1983-1995.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

About 10 days after their confrontation, Meyer reversed herself and allowed TABOR on the ballot. Her staff re-examined the signatures and found enough to be valid. In response, Bruce told reporters, Meyer “should go on a long ocean cruise to regain her mental and moral balance.”

On his third time around, coming off a near victory and with clear momentum at his back, Bruce decided to refine his messaging. Where his first two campaigns emphasized limiting taxes, he now trumpeted a more positive-sounding idea: giving citizens the right to vote on their taxes.

But there was much more to it this time around, too. Bruce’s third amendment was a much more complicated measure than its two predecessors, though it no longer mandated tax cuts as the first version did. “What he didn’t disclose to anybody is whether or not you could vote on taxes is the frosting on the cake,” said Cole Finegan, who was an attorney in Gov. Romer’s office in 1992. “The cake itself is full of all kinds of crazy schemes and diabolical plans on how to limit spending and, in fact, effectively dismantle government.”

Bruce thought that even the politicians who would be bound by the law didn’t understand what was in it. He told a Rocky Mountain News reporter that “their mouths would drop open” when he told them what was in it.

“There are no unintended consequences,” Bruce now says. “None. Zip. Zero. And they get very angry when they hear that, but that’s too bad. I knew what I was doing, and I don’t regret anything that’s in there. I wish I could have put in more, but I had to make a calculated decision about what would get 51 percent of the vote.”

Circumstances out of Bruce’s control spun to his favor, too. Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian organization headquartered in Colorado Springs, pushed hard for Amendment 2, an anti-gay rights measure. (It passed, and for a time Colorado was known as the “Hate State” before the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1996.) The statewide teachers’ union, which had vigorously fought Bruce before, was preoccupied with a voucher amendment. And despite Romer’s insistence that he’d heard voters who wanted more limits on taxes, he actually pushed a tax increase for schools. “He was playing into our hands,” Bruce said.

Taxes were a big issue nationally, as well. Ross Perot, the business tycoon from Texas who ran for president that year as an independent, made speeches that seemed to be right out of Bruce’s notebook. “You the people must take control of this great country,” Perot said in March 1992. “You’ve gotta take Congress’ right to raise taxes … You’ve got to take the bottle away from them for a while.”

Perot performed well in Colorado, garnering nearly 25 percent of the vote. Bruce rode that wave too. On his third try, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights won — 53.6 percent to 46.3 percent.

Video courtesy of KUSA/9 News & KCNC/CBS Denver

For Bruce, it was a moment of relief — and vindication. “If I die tomorrow, they can’t take it away from me,” Bruce said recently, his voice quivering.

Fred Holden, one of Bruce’s biggest supporters, remembers a friend asking him how it felt to live in the “freest state in the nation.” His response: “It feels really good.”

Finegan, Romer’s attorney, admits now that the governor’s office didn’t spend enough effort trying to fight Bruce again. Back then, “TABOR was an afterthought,” he said. Romer himself said he should’ve campaigned harder against TABOR. “That was something I failed in,” Romer said. “Maybe I couldn’t have; maybe nobody could have. But I look back on it and say, ‘That’s the worst thing that happened in 12 years that I was governor.’ ”

But the fight wasn’t over. As Bruce took a victory lap and his influence reached new heights, the government was gearing up to strike back.

Next: “You had to pledge allegiance to Doug Bruce because he was the personification of ‘no new taxes.’ ”

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This story was updated to clarify Ross Perot's wealth status. He was previously referred to as an oil tycoon.

Episode 1: How Douglas Bruce Won

Douglas Bruce earned a rep as a rabble rouser and was seen as little more than that. Then he won, and changed everything.

By: Rachel Estabrook, Nathaniel Minor, Ben Markus
Editor: Robert Smith
Music Composition & Mixing: Ramtin Arablouei
Photographer: Nathaniel Minor
Illustrator: Chelsea Beck
Digital Editor & Producer: Jim Hill
Nov. 13, 2017