Undaunted by some wobbly Coloradans,a few of us are sharing the benefits of tax limitation with other states. SPN News, a national policy letter, has this cover story by JA in its spring issue:
HOW TO PUT THE SPENDERS ON DEFENSE
"We need to stop and ask ourselves: do the taxpayers exist for government,
or does government exist for the taxpayers?" Minority Leader Mark Hillman
threw out this challenge in his opening-day address to the Colorado Senate on
Jan. 12. An hour earlier Hillman had been Majority Leader; hence the combative
Just before he spoke, I had certified the 2004 election results and turned
over the gavel to a new Senate President, liberal Democrat Joan Fitz-Gerald.
So for Mark and me as partisan Republicans, the morning wasn't much fun. But
that day held a larger consolation for us.
Because as proponents of constitutional, limited government, we had the satisfaction
of knowing that even now, amidst political adversity, our side is still setting
the terms of Colorado's budget debate. The opponents of limits remain trapped
in a "me too" stance.
Thus President Fitz-Gerald used her opening-day remarks to pledge that Dems
seek no repeal of our state constitutional provision for spending limitations
and voter approval of taxes; they just want the GOP to go along with some "revenue
enhancement." Earlier she had endorsed the income tax-rate cut favored
this year by Democrat House Speaker Andrew Romanoff - and raised the ante by
proposing another such cut in the future.
Obviously things could be a lot worse for fiscal hawks in the Centennial State
(although after last November's blowout of the longtime Republican majority,
things could also be better). The reason is that regardless of electoral ups
and downs, Colorado's TABOR amendment has put the spenders permanently on defense.
TABOR is everybody's nickname, sweet in some mouths and bitter in others, for
the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, Article X, Section 20 in the Colorado Constitution.
(See full text at www.leg.state.co.us.) The amendment was enacted by voters
after a 1992 petition drive. It (a) requires every new tax, tax increase, or
debt obligation in state or local government to face voter approval, (b) caps
each year's spending increase by any unit of government at the rate of inflation
plus population growth, (c) requires all revenues above the cap to be returned
as tax refunds unless voters direct otherwise, and (d) sets a 3% emergency reserve.
Tax/expenditure limits, or TEL's as the economists call them, have been tried
in statutory or even constitutional form by many states over the years, but
TABOR is acknowledged as the toughest and most enduring of them all - the most
effective at restraining government growth.
It provides fiscal guardrails to keep politicians from careening the budget
process off the road. It kept Colorado from riding the revenue graph of the
1990s up to and then over the edge, as for example California did. It has attracted
interest from legislators and citizen reformers in states from New Hampshire
to Tennessee, Arizona to Wisconsin. Congressmen are looking to introduce a federal
version. Recently it even got Douglas Bruce of Colorado Springs, TABOR's originator,
invited down to Costa Rica - at about
the same time Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, was explaining
it up in Manitoba. (For the Institute's complete archive on the TABOR success
story, see www.independenceinstitute.org.)
Okay, fine, you say, but what good is this in my state, what's the relevance
for my think tank? It's true that states with no initiative process have little
hope of getting any form of TABOR referred as a constitutional amendment by
their elected legislators. Witness the failure of such efforts in 2004 by Rep.
Frank Lasee (WI) and Sen. Jim Bryson (TN), where establishment Republicans in
both cases made the kill. (Though Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer
paid dearly for doing so, going down 4:1 in the August primary.)
Option A or B?
Let me address TABOR's transfer value, its relevance for policymakers and policy
activists everywhere, by coming back to Sen. Hillman's initial question. Do
the taxpayers exist for government, or does government exist for the taxpayers?
Unfortunately, we all know how polite opinion answers this one. Most elected
Democrats, too many elected Republicans, the moguls of media and academia, the
whole nonprofit sector, and a shameful swath of the business community would
mindlessly choose Option A, if not in so many words. Only in the unenlightened,
unorganized ranks of individual taxpaying citizens would Option B command a
majority (many, even there, having been brainwashed to the contrary in government
The resulting power equation is clear - and sobering. All of the inside players,
the big battalions with their money and their influence, favor government growth.
We who favor limits to government have precious little muscle in the halls of
representative lawmaking, despite our massive advantage in raw voting power.
Our only course, then, our only exit ramp from Toynbee's imperial road to ruin,
must be to find ways of using this quantitative superiority to overcome the
other side's qualitative entrenchment.
For conservatives and libertarians to become populists and constitution-changers
means going way outside the comfort zone for some of us, but I see no other
alternative. Certainly it has worked well for Colorado in the form of our Taxpayer's
Bill of Rights. Of course the amendment has its detractors on the right as well
as on the left.
But my experience here in the dozen years since TABOR passed has been that
if you scratch a professed conservative who frets about "direct democracy"
and pleads Burkean regard for representative institutions, underneath you will
find someone who really does not believe - as you and I do - that American government
in our time is too big, too intrusive, growing too fast, costs too much, and
delivers too little value for the dollar.
'It's Our Money'
I submit, then, that our state's TABOR experience is entirely relevant and
transferable to your state - regardless of differences on the ground - in this
way: It shows the importance of changing the terms of debate, initially with
rhetoric, then with organizing, and ultimately with structural reforms, so that
taxpaying citizens are more and more stirred awake to realize: "It's our
money, not theirs."
This is what can finally and permanently put the spenders on defense. This
is what forced such liberals as Fitz-Gerald and Romanoff, in the very moment
of their Colorado political triumph, to genuflect toward taxpayers and vow fiscal
If your state does have the I & R option to bypass self-serving legislative
inaction, reformers in my state would encourage you to build patiently and relentlessly
toward enacting a TABOR of your own. The same in all points, verbatim? Probably
not, since your tax structure and governmental institutions will differ somewhat
from ours. And even without such differences, proponents elsewhere may find
good reasons to tweak Doug Bruce's drafting in the Colorado original. I, or
Jon Caldara's team at the Independence Institute, are certainly on call to help.
Lacking I & R, reformers in your state should, one, agitate for its adoption
and, two, strengthen the tax watchdog citizens movement as rapidly as possible
while, three, pushing the legislature to enact fiscal self-
restraint mechanisms and, four, pulling the legislative makeup in your direction
through targeted election
victories. Examples of the latter in 2004 included not only the Panzer race
in Milwaukee, mentioned above, but also the defeat of tax-hiking Nebraska Speaker
Curt Brom in a congressional primary along with several big-government Republicans
in Oregon and Kansas legislative primaries.
Meanwhile, be prepared for the pushback from your state capitol crowd, alleging
that TABOR has failed in Colorado, paralyzed our state budget, and is on the
way out. There is a potent propaganda machine here, no surprise, peddling that
lie. Since its passage, TABOR has restrained government growth just as intended,
to almost exactly the rate of inflation plus population. Only by the statists'
lights is that failure; by ours it's success.
Paralysis? The spenders want Colorado's next budget to be about 103% of allowed
revenues, at a time when actual revenues are about 106% of the limit, triggering
a 6% refund. Naturally they are screaming about this, but on yours and my yardstick,
again, it is precisely the discipline for leaner government that we all yearn
for. Yes, I'm chagrined that our Republican governor and many GOP legislators
want to ask voters to cough up the 3% difference, instead of wringing it out
of the spending side. That's politicians for you, though.
Bottom line, consider this. Despite those officials' wobbliness, the voter-approval
guardrail for tax increases or refund reductions remains intact, acclaimed with
sincere bipartisan hypocrisy by R's and D's alike. The fiscal back-and-forth
is entirely on our chosen battleground, as I said to begin with. TABOR lives,
and the spenders are stuck on defense. If Coloradans could pull it off, why
not your state?