For decades Democrats squandered our tax dollars like a bunch of drunken sailors. Now that Republicans control government nationally as well as in many states, they too have become intoxicated with spending other people's hard-earned cash. Politicians will be politicians.
What can a poor taxpayer do?
Well, plenty. In states and localities across the country — from Maine to Oregon — voters are taking matters into their own hands. They are placing initiatives on the ballot to control the seemingly irrepressible growth of government. These initiatives, called Stop Over-Spending, are improved adaptations of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights that has worked in Colorado to restrain spending growth and spur the state's economy.
The measures cap only the rate of spending growth; they don't cut current spending by even a penny.
The Stop Over-Spending idea is to allow government spending, year to year, to grow by the combined rate of inflation and population growth. Yet, if governments wish to spend over the cap, they only need ask voters to approve the higher level of spending. And — here's the rub, of course — they might then have to actually make a case for their programs.
Heavens! Warn politicians and special interests everywhere! Common sense is rearing its sensible head.
With politicians regularly proposing that government should do everything for everyone at all times without the slightest hint of priority-setting, government spending grows when times are good and when times are not. In good times, when tax dollars roll in the door beyond all expectations, legislators spend every extra dollar on new programs to please new constituencies as well as the usual special interests. Then, when the economy cools down, and the higher level of spending proves unsustainable, these same politicians scream and moan about cuts. And demand a tax increase, threatening to cut police and fire protection, and to slash benefits going to those most in need.
But politicians never seem to cut any of the fluff, certainly not their own perks and bennies. Take the case of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who, after decrying the near destruction of her state's economy by Hurricane Katrina and the possibility of truly massive budget cuts, nonetheless spent more than half a million dollars refurnishing her office with granite counter tops, walnut paneling, and flat-screen TVs.
There is a better way. Rather than allowing politicians to go on spending sprees when tax revenues rise, these SOS measures require that a certain percentage of the excess revenue be placed in budget stabilization or "rainy day" funds. This puts an end to the feast-and-famine cycle, the crisis management of government. No more raising of taxes at the first sign of an economic slowdown — which is, after all, an especially bad time for a tax increase.
Additionally, the excess tax revenue not placed in such a rainy-day fund must be refunded to taxpayers. Yes, we get the money back. (But will we mere citizens be able to spend our own money as wisely as the politicians could spend it for us? Let's risk it.)
In Colorado, their Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) ushered in real restraints on government growth along with spurring real growth in the private economy. From 1983 to 1992, before TABOR, government spending grew 90 percent, which was 66 percent greater than growth in Coloradan's personal income. After passage of TABOR, from 1993 to 2002, state government spending grew 64 percent, slightly below the rate for personal income. In the decade before TABOR, government jobs increased by 21 percent and non-government jobs grew only 18 percent. But in the following decade, government job growth rate dipped slightly to 20 percent, while non-government job growth more than doubled to a whopping 38 percent.
"The path to jobs and prosperity can only be found by taming government growth so that it does not exceed the capacity of our ability to pay," says Bill Becker, CEO and president of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. "For too long, Maine's state and local spending has created an economy that is less competitive than the rest of the nation, resulting in slower wage growth and anemic job creation."
Or as Oklahoma State Sen. Randy Brogden put even more succinctly, "It's time to stop growing government and start growing jobs."
Already, initiatives in Maine and Oklahoma have collected enough signatures on petitions to place spending cap measures before voters this November. Tax reform advocates in six more states — Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon — have filed initiatives to rein in their governments' spendthrift ways and are now beginning to gather petitions from their fellow citizens for ballot placement this year.
Not surprisingly, the Stop Over-Spending movement is meeting fierce resistance. Politicians of both parties as well as the swarms of special interests hovering around state capitols have kicked up a fuss. They claim SOS measures will cripple public services from education to transportation, even though spending will not be cut at all. This argument amounts to the usual Chicken Little fear-mongering we've come to expect from special interests when the public threatens to stop writing blank checks. Apparently, when one's idea of health is to double in size every decade, no limit can seem reasonable.
Stop Over-Spending opponents also argue that the notion is growing stale. Coloradans, they say, actually rejected their Taxpayer Bill of Rights when voters agreed last November to allow government to spend beyond TABOR's set caps.
What a stretch! How far will they go? All the way to a farrago!
Stop Over-Spending, like Colorado's TABOR, is not just about spending caps. It's about keeping spending under voter control. Stop Over-Spending measures, like Colorado's TABOR, puts voters in charge of state government spending. When voters are persuaded by their state government, they may allow greater spending. That's what happened in Colorado, the voters opted to put aside normal-time caps for a certain period.
But here's the key: unlike most states, in Colorado it was the voters' decision to make.
Voters should have similar control elsewhere . . . everywhere.
But . . . voters in charge? Nothing scares the politicians and trough-feeders more.