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Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation v. City of Aspen

Issue:

Whether a governmental entity can circumvent the Colorado Constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) by labeling a tax a "fee?"

Plaintiff:

Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation

Defendant:

City of Aspen and Mick Ireland, Adam Frisch, Torre, Steve Skadron, and Derek Johnson, all in their official capacities as members of the Aspen City Council

Court:

Colorado District Court for Pitkin County
Briefing and argument before the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In October 2011, the Aspen City Council passed a "Waste Reduction Fee," similar to taxes imposed by Telluride, Carbondale, and Basalt, to collect a 20 cent tax on each disposable carryout bag grocers provide to customers. The tax, which went into effect on May 1, 2012, applies to paper bags, but only to those bags distributed by grocers. Plastic bags are banned. Like a sales tax, grocers collect the tax from customers and remit the proceeds to the City of Aspen. The City Council was urged to enact the tax because, "Aspen considers itself an environmental leader and this topic presents an opportunity for Aspen to continue to take a progressive stance on environmental issues." During the first year of the tax, grocers may retain a portion to inform customers about the tax, train staff about the tax, and alter infrastructures to accommodate the collection of the tax. Revenue from the tax funds general expenses of Aspen government, including public educational campaigns, infrastructure, pollution-reduction equipment, and community cleanup events.

CUT alleges that its members should have been allowed to vote on the $0.20 tax Aspen imposes on each disposable carryout bag grocers provide to their customers and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and an order requiring refund of all revenues collected, along with the payment of interest, as required by TABOR.

The City of Aspen attempts to circumvent TABOR by calling the tax a "fee"; however, the Colorado Supreme Court has held that nomenclature does not control and that a tax is subject to TABOR if its purpose is to raise revenue for general governmental spending. A fee is charged to individuals who use a service; a tax funds the general expenses of government.

The impact of bag taxes is significant. Research by the Beacon Hill Institute and Americans for Tax Reform found that Washington, D.C.'s bag tax cost at least 100 jobs and resulted in a $5.6 million drop in aggregate disposable income.

On August 21, 2012, MSLF filed a complaint in Pitkin County District Court on behalf of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation (CUT) against the City of Aspen and its City Council, alleging that the bag tax violates TABOR.  On October 15, 2012, the parties commenced discovery. 

On March 21, 2013, MSFL filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of CUT, and on April 11, 2013, the defendants filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and a response to CUT’s motion for summary judgment.  On May 2, 2013, MSLF filed CUT’s response and reply brief.  On May 16, 2013, the defendants filed their reply. On May 23, 2013, MSLF requested oral argument on behalf of CUT. 

No Status Updates
  • Colorado Taxpayers Notice Appeal in Aspen Bag Tax Case

    Sep 26, 2014
    A Colorado nonprofit, public-interest group that educates others on the dangers of excessive taxation, regulation, and government spending and protects citizens’ right to petition government today filed notice of its appeal of the ruling by a Colorado district court in the group’s challenge to the constitutionality of a bag tax imposed by the City of Aspen.
  • Colorado Taxpayers Lose In Challenge To Aspen’s Bag Tax

    Aug 11, 2014
    A Colorado nonprofit, public-interest group that educates others on the dangers of excessive taxation, regulation, and government spending and protects citizens’ right to petition government today lost the first stage of its challenge to the constitutionality of a bag tax imposed by the City of Aspen.
  • Taxpayers’ Fight for Right To Stop Spending Off to Supreme Court

    Jul 22, 2014
    Colorado taxpayers defending their right to limit spending by use of a constitutional amendment today learned that an adverse ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit appears headed to the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Taxpayer Group Files Brief In Colorado Bridge Tax Case

    Jun 4, 2013
    A Colorado group that defends the rights of taxpayers today filed its post-trial brief in Colorado state court following a two-day trial in its lawsuit against two Colorado bodies and their officials for violating the Colorado Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).
  • Colorado Taxpayers Rebut Arguments on Aspen's Bag Tax

    May 2, 2013
    A Colorado nonprofit, public-interest group that educates the public on the dangers of excessive taxation, regulation, and government spending and protects citizens’ right to petition government today responded to arguments filed with a Colorado state court by the City of Aspen on whether it and the five members of its City Council violated the Colorado Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation (CUT) alleged in a lawsuit filed in Pitkin County District Court in August 2012 that its members should have been allowed to vote on a $0.20 tax imposed on each disposable carryout bag Aspen grocers provide to customers.


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