The Long War

Why we see what we see in Carson City

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, October 11, 2005

If you notice, foes of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) idea never claim it is ineffective at restraining budget growth.

In other words, the critics—in their quiet unanimity regarding TABOR’s efficacy—virtually admit why they don’t like TABOR: It’s successful at restraining government expansion.

Yet, the fact is, government can grow under TABOR. All that’s required is that 1) the voters be asked about government-expansion proposals and then 2), the voters agree.

So what the foes of taxpayer protection really are confessing, in their hostility to anything remotely like TABOR, is their hostility to the idea of voters, rather than themselves, having final say on schemes to expand those same voters’ taxes.

This is an admission with huge significance. It makes a bone-chilling but clear statement about the normally predatory nature of state government. It says, in so many words: “Under the current system, we insiders get to eat your lunch and fleece you blind, and you are powerless to stop us. And because this amoral system advantages us (tax-consumers), over you (taxpayers), it must remain imposed on you.”

This account of our system explains much of what we’ve seen coming out of Carson City in recent years—regardless of the branch of state government involved. When hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are rolling down the juice-sluices, yet the taxpayers themselves are effectively powerless to protect themselves, the arrogance among the political class is bound to balloon.

The flip side is true, too. Just the possibility that taxpayers might become empowered injects a whiff of panic into the air around tax-eaters rushing to declaim about the prospective TASC-for-Nevada initiative—which they haven’t even seen yet. The mere knowledge that it may have been inspired by Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights is enough to bring beads of sweat to the face and start the shouting.

This sort of thing will afflict political discussion in Nevada for the rest of this year and most of next, and for many years to come. That’s because empowerment of taxpayers threatens the whole way of life of the tax-consumer and tax-spender coalition—economically, ideologically and even culturally. So even if Nevada taxpayers next year win an important victory on this front, we have to understand that the Long War will continue.

Go back just a quarter of a century. In 1979, California voters passed that state’s Gann Limit, which during the 1980s successfully limited the growth of California state government. Indeed, when tax receipts exceeded the Gann Limit in 1987, the state was required to refund $1.1 billion to taxpayers in surplus tax revenues.

Naturally, however, this upset Californians who believed they had a right to Other People’s Money—the teacher union and its allies, primarily. In a clever 1988 counterattack, they vigorously pushed for and won ballot approval of Proposition 98; it required that public schools receive a share of any revenues over the Gann Limit. The zinger was in the fine print: the state had to keep up the higher rate of school funding even when there weren’t any revenues over the Gann Limit.

Soon, the automated increases in education spending began crowding out other state programs. But—under a coordinated propaganda assault from the spending lobby—it was the Gann Limit that got most of the blame. In 1990 wily Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and the transportation lobby were able to administer the coup de grace with Proposition 111, substantially raising the spending limit. Thereafter, the Gann Limit was essentially a dead letter and California was back on the fast track to budgetary hell—more commonly known as the Five Years of Gray Davis.

In Colorado, the strategy used to undermine TABOR appears to have been imported directly from California: the successful 1988 assault on the Gann Limit. Colorado voters were asked in 2000 to approve Amendment 23, which—you guessed it—constitutionally mandates that K-12 education spending increases regardless of other needs that may come up in the state: at the rate of inflation plus enrollment growth plus one percentage point each year.

At the very crest of the 1990’s economic bubble, Colorado voters agreed. Today, as Amendment 23 eats its way, year by year, into a progressively larger share of the state budget, TABOR is being blamed. And once again, a frenzied campaign has been loosed against the taxpayer protection measure, blaming it for all the budgetary ills that TABOR foes themselves, operating out of the government school monopoly, unleashed.

The Long War goes on.

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

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