Political outsiders, gun-toting miners and grizzled pioneers started Colorado's government, but few have caused it more trouble than anti-tax iconoclast Douglas Bruce.
A prickly, paunchy activist who moved to Colorado in the 1980s after giving up a legal career in California, Bruce brought a hatred of government and a mission to hobble it to Colorado Springs. Bruce took over a fledgling effort to force voter approval for tax hikes, and less than a decade later, engineered a pioneering state constitutional amendment called the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a tax-limiting measure still widely praised and panned for curbing government.
Appointed to the state House in 2007, Bruce showed a rebellious streak that left even his fellow Republicans slack-jawed. He voted against honoring veterans, called Mexican farm workers "illiterate peasants" and kicked a news photographer who took his picture, a kick that earned Bruce the first formal censure in the history of the Colorado House.
Now, a year after leaving office, Bruce is still giving public officials heartburn.
He's been linked in court documents to three ballot proposals to further restrict the government's ability to tax, and when ordered to court to talk about his role in those campaigns, Bruce couldn't be reached, saying he was visiting presidential birthplaces in the Midwest. Bruce has been ordered to court Monday to answer a subpoena, and in typical Bruce fashion, he's spitting mad at the officials who want to hear from him.
"They hate my guts," Bruce told an Associated Press reporter who called his home seeking an interview.
Bruce shuns the limelight as much as he seems to seek it. He's known for his disdain of reporters, frequently cursing at them or telling them never to call him again.
On one recent day, Bruce said he had no time for an interview in person — then spent about an hour on the phone railing against government, both political parties and the media. He wouldn't give his age — "none of your damn business," he barked — but didn't mind sharing what he planned to have for lunch (quesadillas).
Bruce put down his guard when he asked about his mission to trim government. His campaign for the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, called "TABOR," won him the admiration of conservatives when it passed in 1992. Bruce isn't modest about its influence.
"It was the most important event in Colorado since statehood," Bruce said.
Even TABOR's opponents don't disagree. Colorado's constitution now requires public approval before raising most taxes, and demands that government can't grow faster than the combined rate of inflation and population growth.
However, TABOR makes no provision for rising productivity, so if incomes rise, taxes stay flat. TABOR's been blamed for Colorado's current fiscal woes — the state pocketbook currently faces a $75 million shortfall. When federal stimulus money runs out, officials warn, Colorado could be forced to make draconian cuts, such as closing schools and hospitals.
"Even though he's a despicable human being, Doug knew exactly what he was doing — it just took years for the rest of us to figure out what the effect would be," said former state Sen. Mike Feeley, a Democrat elected the same year TABOR passed. "He outsmarted us. It sounds good, to have people vote on taxes, but in reality it just starves government. It's a strangle-government-in-the-bathtub initiative."
Bruce chuckles at the characterization. To him, government is evil and must be stopped, so the drowning analogy suits him fine.
"I'm trying to keep government honest, which is a romantic and constant battle," he said.
While some current anti-government ideas espoused by the tea party would appear to be cut wholesale from Bruce's cloth, he is dismissive: "There are as many windbags in the tea party movement as there are in the general public."
He worries that state officials have found away around TABOR. They raise fees, but not taxes, and keep expanding government, he said. So this year, three measures headed to Colorado voters would further limit the government's ability to spend.
One would make it harder for government to override tax limits. Another would limit municipal borrowing. The third limits state automobile and phone taxes.
Government officials and many Democrats fear the initiatives would spell doom, and they've asked a judge to throw out the ballot measures. Because the proposals have already garnered enough signatures to be on statewide ballots, opponents are hoping the courts will prevent a public vote. Opponents say Bruce directed the ballot campaigns but wasn't properly listed as a backer — a charge Bruce denies.
"Don't associate me with those," Bruce snapped, though another backer of the ballot measures said said under oath that Bruce was the "Mr. X" who helped organize petition efforts. But another ballot backer, Natalie Menten, told AP that Bruce is a hero to the anti-tax movement, but nothing more.
"The government has been going behind our backs and saddling our children with debt," said Menten, a volunteers with an anti-tax group from suburban Lakewood.
The proposals seem like an easy sell in a year when government spending has many voters on edge. That's why Sam Mamet, head of the Colorado Municipal League, spends most days traveling to cities to persuade voters and local officials to oppose the measures. The League has joined the lawsuit seeking to keep the measures off ballots.
"It's gone a little too far," Mamet said of Colorado's anti-tax ballot parade. On his travels, Mamet routinely talks about a hypothetical town unable to buy a new fire truck because it can't finance it. He openly frets that his alarm won't spread to average voters.
Bruce dismisses the fire truck story as a scare tactic, pointing out that TABOR's nearly 20 years old and that Colorado hasn't collapsed yet.
"Government hates TABOR because it's us controlling government, not government controlling us, which is what they want," Bruce said.
Bruce griped that government officials won't leave him alone. He can't stand the attention, he says, and even turned down an invitation to speak to a college class in Denver about TABOR's effect — "Why am I going to waste four hours of my day to go talk to a few kids?"
But a few breaths later, Bruce wouldn't end the interview without asking for publicity for his personal website.
"It's douglasbruce.com. Make sure you put that on there," he said.
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