Monday, November 07, 2005

Death of a Bad Idea

The Bad Idea is TABOR, the so-called Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which is really just mandated tax reductions ratcheting downward, ever downward. Just don't fail us now, California (where they vote tomorrow on their version, Prop. 76; let's hope they help, forgive me, Terminator the idea.)

Arizona was supposed to be one of the next stops for a TABOR-style initiative, but we can hope that Colorado may have just taken that particular wind out of those particular sails. My choice of headline was "Grover Norquist Wants Arizona To Be More Like Mississippi--And Mississippi To Be More Like Honduras." But the editor went for less metaphor and more viciousness. There's also an ambiguous cartoon accompanying the column (you can see it here). I call it ambiguous because you can't tell if the angry man demanding that the mother and child put coins in his cup is a legislator demanding they pay taxes, or a rich guy demanding his tax cuts. I guess it's a cartoon Rorschach which one views in accord with one's existing predispositions.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 6, 2005

Last week, Colorado said “no” to the politics of personal irresponsibility. Here in Arizona, let’s hope it’s a trend.

By a 52-48 margin, voters approved suspending Colorado’s “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (called TABOR), foregoing upwards of $3.5 billion in otherwise-mandated tax refunds for five years. The vote also eliminated TABOR’s “recession ratchet,” which limited state spending and revenues to inflation and population growth. When the 2001-02 recession and drought decreased state revenues by 13 percent one year and 4 percent the next, Colorado couldn’t put a temporary hold on projects until the economy recovered. The TABOR ratchet meant that spending never recovered from the sudden revenue drop.

Of course, the whole point of TABOR is ‘wingers’ belief that we should replace legislators with machines, making public policy totally automatic. It’s their “never mind what people need, here are the numbers” philosophy -- which, not incidentally, separates anti-tax extremists from the actual consequences of their proposals.

Given that mandatory health care costs, which don’t limit their growth to inflation plus population, represent huge chunks of every state’s spending, the formula concept is flawed from the start. TABOR was the highest expression of these zealots’ impervious-to-reality belief that taxes always, always, always must go down -- no matter what’s actually happening in the real world.

Colorado found itself rapidly approaching Mississippi-like levels in funding higher education and Medicaid. Despite a voter-approved initiative increasing support for K-12 education, the state dropped farther behind in funding. The state budget office announced that Colorado would have to close 11 state parks, raise university tuitions, cap the prison population, cut funding for healthcare, end instant background checks on firearms purchases, and eliminate ski lift inspections -- which cuts would close only $255 million of the TABOR-required $365 million in reductions.

The ‘wingers realized the stakes in Colorado, and they brought in a healthy amount of undisclosed out-of-state money for the “no” campaign. (These guys talk a lot about transparency, except when it concerns them. They also hate “government by initiative,” except when it’s their initiative.) Opponents ran ads claiming that all the money somehow would go to illegal immigrants. But voters weren’t buying, and recognized that their taxes actually buy useful things like healthcare, education, parks, and ski lift inspections -- and they wanted to keep them.

Colorado’s rejection of TABOR -- and of the “drown it in the bathtub” fanaticism of Grover Norquist, the man who nearly single-handedly has converted the “Party of Lincoln” into the “Party of Jack Abramoff and the No-New-Taxes Pledge” -- is good news for rational and responsible governance elsewhere. California voters get to decide on their version of one of these fiscal straightjackets on Tuesday, and Arizona was thought to be one of the next places to roll out this cookie-cutter idea.

As Douglas Bruce, the author of TABOR, said on election night, “The establishment is going to say we had 13 years of experience with spending limits and we changed our minds.” Well, yes, people might just say that, because it’s true.

That’s what the Republican House minority leader in Colorado, state Rep. Joe Stengel, told a conference call last week: TABOR is “as good as dead” in Colorado, and the voters killed it. “I think we now have become a blue state, frankly,” he said. Of course, the fact that Stengel’s Republicans lost both houses of the legislature and a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, and last week 52 percent of Colorado voters went with the other side, probably means he’s correct. There’s nothing like looking at closing state parks, eliminating funding for state universities, and slashing healthcare for the poor to show people that the extremist wackos really are pretty extreme.

So last week, the people who had to live with the consequences of the very latest in “stupid conservative governing tricks” have said it was a terrible mistake. How about if we in Arizona learn from their experience, and not make the same mistakes Colorado did?

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