On Ratchets

Taxeaters love to rant about the TABOR "ratchet". But they've got a much more insidious one of their own.

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, August 16, 2005

In Colorado the majority leader of the state senate is going around trying to gin up hostility against that state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) with a spiel about what he calls “Nurse Ratchett.”

“I have been speaking to a number of groups about this,” Democrat Ken Gordon says on his web site, www.kengordon.com. “I say, ‘How can anyone like something called a “ratchet.” It sounds inflexible. Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was not a sympathetic character…’”

Ignore, for the moment, that Gordon doesn’t actually know or respect Ken Kesey’s great novel or Milos Forman’s multiple-Oscar movie enough to bother to get the name right (the sadistic nurse was named Mildred Ratched).

More fundamentally striking here is the bland cynicism that attempts to harness the force of a story about resistance to oppressive and dishonest authority and make it serve precisely that.

It’s no doubt true, of course, that when Kesey named his sadistic and deeply disturbed nurse character, he wanted to—at least in part—evoke the merciless character of a mechanical steel ratchet, which allows movement in only one lethal direction. After all, when Kesey’s hero, McMurphy, falls into her clutches, he eventually ends up lobotomized.

It’s also true that one feature of Colorado’s version of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights has also been nicknamed the “ratchet.” It’s the provision that lowers the spending cap when revenues fall, and then, when revenues rise again, requires politicians to ask for voters’ permission before raising spending back to the old levels.

But is that so terrible? And is it honest to paint that requirement as comparable to the terrible Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s tale? Not really. The fact is, when politicians of Gordon’s ilk launch their public rants against Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights they always conveniently forget to mention a key fact: The supposedly dread ratchet melts away into nothingness if voters say so.

Why is that important reality mentioned so rarely by politicians who make careers out of servicing the taxeater political coalitions? To ask that question is to answer it. Election would be much more difficult for candidates who let it be known that their real drive is to rule voters, rather than represent them—and in a regime without impediments to such autocratic appetites.

Under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, of course, that impediment is the Colorado voter. This is who the unthinking Gordon unfairly paints with his “Nurse Ratchett” brush.

How unjust this is becomes even more apparent when another widely unreported fact is placed on the table: The truth is that Colorado voters give surprisingly frequent exemptions to government from the sterner rigors of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. This is called “de-Brucing,” after the original author of the constitutional amendment, Douglas Bruce. As of six years ago, according to the 1999 Colorado Public Finance Guide, in the years since TABOR became part of Colorado’s basic charter, over 81 percent of the state’s counties, 78 percent of the municipalities and 70 percent of the school districts have been so entrusted.

Naturally enough, it is governments closest to the people that most often receive voters’ permission to depart from TABOR’s strictures. Coloradoans give state-level politicians such freedom far less frequently. Very often, state proposals simply lack basic credibility. Perhaps the very appetite for power that leads people to seek statewide office often also soon leads them down the wrong policy paths.

Take, for example, the current bid by the State of Colorado, in a November ballot measure, for a five-year holiday from the rigors of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. After much complaining by Governor Owens and legislative leaders about the TABOR ratchet, what they have proposed is to merely return Colorado, for five years, to the regime that afflicted it before the TABOR reforms: the ever-higher-spending ratchet.

This is the dirty little secret of the tax-eaters lobby—in Colorado, in Nevada, and all over America: For all their hysterics about TABOR, a much more insidious ratchet has been their own secret delight for decades—and their primary instrument for filching away an ever-higher proportion of taxpayers’ income.

It works quite simply: When high revenues come in, spend every available cent on expanding government. Then, when the business cycle turns down and tax revenues decline, scream bloody murder and—with your collaborating politicians—increase the tax burden. And keep doing it, cycle after cycle.

Now, that’s a ratchet Nurse Ratched would love.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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