Government on a citizen-run diet

Posted: Oct 30, 2005 12:05 AM

Once after comparing big spending congressmen to drunken sailors, Ronald Reagan apologized to the sailors; they at least spent their own money. He could have added that sailors eventually sober up — something most politicians never manage, at least when it comes to fiscal politics.

So, year in, year out, virtually everywhere, our already quite corpulent governments — local, state, federal — just keep growing and growing and growing. Despite campaign promises to the contrary. Regardless whether it's the Democrats or Republicans who are in charge.

Except in Colorado. There it really doesn't matter how much money politicians want to spend, since only voters can make that decision. With their Taxpayers' Bill of Rights law, Colorado voters have more control over the growth of their state government than voters anywhere else. The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, called TABOR for short, was placed on the ballot by citizen initiative and passed by voters back in 1992.

TABOR is simple: it mandates that government spending, year to year, can increase no more than the rate of inflation plus population growth. If surplus tax dollars come into state government coffers, they must be rebated to taxpayers. However, a vote of the people can permit state legislators to break the cap and spend more money. Thus, TABOR puts government on a diet, one that regularly allows natural government growth, but only allows greater than natural growth when authorized by a vote of the people.

In most states, when revenue rolls in during good times, politicians dream up new programs in order to spend every single penny. When money falls off in bad times, the politicians and special interests scream and moan about budget cuts or rush to raise taxes.

For example, during the boom years of the 1990s, when many states nearly doubled their spending, Colorado's TABOR spending limitation kept government growth to reasonable limits, and forced politicians to return over $3 billion dollars to taxpayers. When the recession hit at the end of the '90s, Colorado escaped the tax increases and budget cuts seen in California and other states that had over-spent in the good years.

In fact, since TABOR was enacted in Colorado, the state has regularly outpaced the rest of the country in economic growth. Advocates for limited government across the nation are beginning to demand this brand of spending cap. Citizens in Maine just turned in 55,000 signatures to put a TABOR-like measure on the 2006 ballot and a group in Oklahoma has launched a petition drive to establish a similar state spending cap there.

Still, TABOR hasn't ushered in nirvana. Colorado suffered a serious drought in 2002, which walloped agricultural production and dramatically worsened the state's recession. Though total state spending has gone up every year under TABOR, the budget has been tight. And the budget crunch has been exacerbated by an amendment to the state constitution, Amendment 23, which mandates higher spending each year on K-12 education, thus removing it from the TABOR caps. So, other budget items have felt the squeeze even more.

Of course, politicians despise the very idea of any limit to their spending, the wellspring of all their power. So, every problem under the sun has been blamed on TABOR.

Those in government, and those who profit from it, have previously pushed seven times since 1993 to break the voter-enacted spending cap. Each time voters have said no. Now these usual suspects are pushing passage of Referendums C & D, two measures put on the ballot by the Democrat-controlled state legislature with the support of the Republican governor.

With Referendum C, politicians ask voters to throw out the caps on state government spending for the next five years. Projections suggest Referendum C amounts to a $3.7 billion tax hike. Referendum D goes a step further, allowing the state government to borrow $2 billion, which with interest could cost taxpayers more than $3 billion to pay back.

Besides politicians, who else supports Referendum C & D? A long list of businesses and unions looking for special favors. Most noteworthy is the fact that four of the ten largest donors to the committee promoting C & D are public employee unions.

This Tuesday, a week before citizens in California, New York, Ohio and Washington state decide a spate of ballot measures, and before voters in New Jersey and Virginia elect governors and legislators, Colorado citizens will decide just how much their state government may spend.

No matter how the vote totals come in, the fact that voters get to decide is a victory for the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. Americans everywhere wish that they, too, had that much control.

Coloradans are likely to vote no on these two turkeys, even with the state's most powerful lobbies pushing C & D by filling the airwaves with sky-is-falling warnings about the consequences of not giving politicians every last dime they want. Colorado voters know: if you want leaner government, keep government on a citizen-run diet.