The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights exposes elitism in its most outspoken critics. Listen to them as some celebrate and others mourn 20 years since voters amended the Colorado Constitution to give the governed control of their government. Some who dislike TABOR believe the governing class knows what’s best for everyone else, as others believe state government should spend without constraint.
A front-page article in the Sunday Denver Post quoted Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson, a Republican who travels the country to warn other states against enacting TABOR-like limits on government.
“One of the years I was in the Legislature, we were refunding over $900 million to taxpayers at the same time we were making cuts,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to see them (other states) make the same mistake that Colorado did.”
It is a “mistake” that voters chose to reduce the size and cost of government, but Johnson never explains exactly how voters were mistaken. Given that voters have the easy option of amending their constitution, and have chosen to keep TABOR for 20 years, it doesn’t seem like a “mistake.” Maybe, just maybe, a majority of voters wanted cuts in state programs and a $900 million return of their hard-earned cash. The money belongs to the governed. The state government and its services belong to governed and are under their control. Politicians work for constituents, not the other way around. If voters want a small government that does almost nothing, it is their right. Johnson complains that state spending, as a portion of personal income, has dropped from 6.7 percent in fiscal 1993-94 to 3.9 percent today.
“It shrinks government relative to the economy,” Johnson said of TABOR. “I would say that it’s a government-shrinking device.”
Johnson assumes that Coloradans are naive, and would react with moral outrage if only they knew that TABOR shrinks government. More likely, Coloradans didn’t want to pay 6.7 percent of their incomes for state services. Maybe Johnson’s gripe represents victory, rather than a mistake.
Johnson complains that legislators reduced income and sales taxes during a bull market in the late ’90s. Politicians cannot raise them unilaterally, because of TABOR, and voters won’t do it. So, Johnson frets about a majority of the governed getting exactly what they want. If that’s bad, it means Johnson dislikes allowing the governed to choose the size and scope of a government that was created for no purpose other than to serve them.
The Post quotes Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center, describing TABOR as a failure.
“You’ve got a Legislature that is supposed to make spending decisions and the people, who are supposed to make revenue decisions. You don’t really have a way of effectively rationalizing the two of those processes.”
Yet, those processes are intrinsically rational. The Legislature is supposed to make spending decisions of the size and nature requested by those who fund it. That’s why the governed, the customers of government, enacted TABOR. And nothing sounds less rational than unchecked legislative spending. If the Legislature makes spending and revenue decisions, and the governed have no say, nothing limits what politicians will spend. Think Congress. Think California. Evidence of this phenomenon abounds. No one, outside of government, gets to unilaterally control expenditures and income. It’s a kid-in-a-candy-store fantasy.
In a constitutional republic, voters have almost no authority to control individuals. Yet they have full authority to dictate the size and scope of governments that were created to pool and allocate some of their money.
Largely because of TABOR, only five other states have combined state and local tax burdens lower than Colorado’s. For some Coloradans, true success will entail having the lowest tax burden among all states. Prosperity, caused only by innovation and trade in the private sector, is a true measure of cultural progress. A state that controls expenses, to maximize capital in the private sector, will excel among its peers.