Coloradans are getting a letter from Gov. Polis with their TABOR refund checks, and the GOP is crying foul

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at a bill signing ceremony for free, universal preschool, on Monday, April 25, 2022, in Denver.

Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado GOP are tangling over a letter taxpayers will receive with their TABOR refund checks in the coming weeks; Republicans accuse Polis of using the communication to boost his reelection chances. 

The letter, which Polis described to CPR as informative, comes with the governor’s signature at the bottom. On Thursday, Kristi Burton Brown, the executive director of the Colorado Republican party, filed a campaign finance complaint alleging it amounts to electioneering at the taxpayers’ expense.

“This letter blatantly misleads voters by refusing to say the word ‘TABOR’ or ‘Taxpayer Bill of Rights.’ Instead, the Governor uses his own campaign language of ‘Colorado Cashback,’ a phrase he coined during his campaign for re-election,” states Burton Brown in the complaint.

In an interview with CPR’s Colorado Matters, Polis said his name won’t be on the actual refund checks, but explained why he added a letter. 

“There's a lot of people who don't know this is coming and so they have to make sure this is not like some loan. It's in fact a refund check. People have to know it's not a scam; It's legit. I mean, people need to cash this check,” he said. “This is serious. This is important. This is needed.”

The Taxpayers Bill of Rights limits how much the state budget can grow from year to year and requires the government to pay any excess money back. Normally the refunds go out in the spring, but under a new bipartisan law passed by legislators and the Polis administration last legislative session, checks are being sent early.

Supporters said the goal is to help people dealing with inflation and high gas prices. But critics point out that it means people are getting the money ahead of the midterm election.

Polis’ letter states in part “thanks to Colorado’s strong economic growth and our successful work to close special interest loopholes, we are able to put even more of your hard-earned money back in your pocket, and we’re doing it ahead of schedule.” 

A spokesperson for Polis’ campaign said the complaint from the GOP is unfounded.

“Should we expect the Colorado GOP to file a complaint against Trump’s letters and checks too? Let’s get real here, this is all just baseless claims from the GOP and their MAGA candidate,” said spokesperson Amber Miller. “Truth is, the more Republicans are talking about the refunds and tax relief that Governor Polis is urgently delivering, the more they help us get the word out.”

And proving the complaint could be a challenge for the GOP, because the letter doesn’t explicitly mention the upcoming election or urge recipients to vote for him.

“I think that there's a difference between, ‘Has he violated a law?’ or ‘Has he done something that seems a little cynical, but not unlawful?’” said Mario Nicolais, an attorney who specializes in election law and primarily represents Republicans. He is not involved with any of the campaigns for governor.

Nicolais did note that the letter looks like a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, but with a slight caveat: the former president actually put his name on the stimulus checks prior to the 2020 election. 

“Who would've thought that Jared Polis would be taking campaign advice from Donald Trump, right?” Nicolais said.

But he said that sitting elected officials, such as the Governor, have leeway when it comes to communications that could be considered within the “regular course and scope” of their duties, which is what he expects Polis will argue. 

Still Nicolais doesn’t think the checks are going to make much of a difference in determining whether someone votes for Polis or his Republican challenger Heidi Ganahl. Instead he said the letter and the complaint show that in a political year both sides will try to use whatever they can to gain a slight edge.

“This is why people get so upset about, kind of politics as usual.”