The Significance of TABOR

There's a new antidote in the constitutional medicine chest

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Gratitude, said Samuel Johnson, is “the fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.” Ingratitude, on the other hand, wrote Shakespeare, “is a marble-hearted fiend.”

Both statements deserve serious consideration by the political class here in Nevada and across the country. By all rights, state legislators, for example, should be singing grateful hosannas to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Instead, the most common reflex is surly resentment—when not an active descent into outright misrepresentation. What’s going on?

TABOR, as Colorado’s constitutional amendment is called, saved that state in 2002 from a huge fiscal catastrophe. When total state revenues crashed after 9/11, Colorado was the best protected of almost all the states. Rather than suffer the 13 percent, or $1.125 billion, hit to its state general fund budget that otherwise would have ensued, Colorado confronted a mere 2.5 percent ($196 million) shortfall. The reason was TABOR: It had stopped state politicians from spending every red cent when the late-1990s’ bubble was metastasizing into record revenues. Instead, state spending legally could increase only in proportion to year-over-year increases in state population and the cost of living. Revenue surpluses over TABOR’s ceiling had to be refunded to Colorado taxpayers—whose money, after all, it actually was.

In the colorful phrase of Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, “TABOR saved our fiscal fanny.”

Remarkably, however, the reaction of many state lawmakers and others to this record of success has been barely concealed rancor—plus a concerted campaign to blame TABOR for what are actually consequences of the post-9/11 recession. The motivation is clear enough: TABOR in Colorado has significantly reduced one of politicians’ key pleasures—spending other people’s money—and the pols desperately want to reclaim that power. Unfortunately for them, however, the word is out: the Taxpayer Bill of Rights concept is possibly the most important innovation in democratic self-government in the last 200 years.

At least since the start of the 19th century, state and federal governments in America have been hosts for an ever-spreading cancer: the accelerating ability of narrow special-interest factions to successfully mobilize their ever-increasing political power, then concentrate it to override the diffuse interests and divided attention of the general electorate. With no antidote available in the constitutional medicine chest, such groups have proliferated into every niche of the economy. Allied with collaborator-lawmakers, these factions have been able to reroute an ever-rising river of taxpayer dollars into their own private interest-group coffers.

Simple math shows the basic problem: One dollar pilfered by government from each of a million taxpayers (here in Nevada, for example) is both too small and too large. From the standpoint of the individual taxpayer, it is too small a sum to be noticed. From the standpoint of politically astute grifters, however, that million-dollar sum is more than enough incentive for concocting all sorts of “idealistic” schemes and laying full-bore siege to the state legislature.

So that is precisely what happens—except that today the per-taxpayer hit is always much greater than $1. Because stealthy hidden taxes can successfully wring much larger sums out of taxpayers with no discernible backlash, the focus-group testing of effective predatory themes and schemes—plus the planning of affiliated political campaigns—has become the full-time occupation of tax-eating interest groups in the Silver State and around the country.

For over the last 200 years this process—at first jerry-built and seat-of-the-pants, and today increasingly sophisticated—has been the main engine of government growth. Over all of that period, it also has been the primary driver of the systemic corruption of the American legislative process.

Which brings us to the significance of TABOR: For the first time, in a substantive way, the taxpayers of American political jurisdictions—state, city, county or school district—are transformed into an empowered countervailing force, able to keep government growth within reasonable bounds. No longer can special interests and the lawmakers they’ve suborned simply continue the looting uninterrupted. No longer can taxpayers be reduced to mere supplicant pleaders, excluded from the room while the special interests and the politicians huddle alone, deciding how much bleeding the taxpayers are to undergo.

Instead, TABOR gives effective constitutional protection to the sovereign right of American citizens to retain their own property and earnings. If special interests can convince voters that a proposed expansion of government is warranted, and the best use of marginal voter income, government will expand.

If not: Not.

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

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