Anti-Tax Ballot Box Revolt Stifled

 
A nationwide campaign to use the ballot box to rein in state spending has fizzled even before voters had a chance to weigh in on Nov. 7.

While voters in Maine, Nebraska and Oregon will consider ballot measures that cap increases in state spending, similar "Stop Over Spending" initiatives got booted off ballots in Michigan, Montana, Nevada and Oklahoma primarily because of concerns about the validity of the signatures.

The paltry number of states that have spending limit measures on the ballot is a far cry from the nearly two dozen states that conservative political strategists and grassroots anti-tax crusaders had hoped for when the year began.

"We'll be back in all those states," said Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform group is a lead organizer of the state ballot measures. He blamed "annoying technicalities" for knocking off the spending limit measures in those states.

The measures also won't appear on the Ohio, Missouri and Rhode Island ballots. I n Ohio, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell and Republican candidate for governor, pushed to have voters consider a constitutional amendment to cap state spending, but decided to settle for a less sweeping plan from the Legislature after the issue generated opposition on the campaign trail.

In Missouri, the secretary of state ruled that signature gatherers failed to follow specific rules and refused to put the measure on the ballot. And in Rhode Island, the state high court said Republican Gov. Don Carcieri exceeded his authority by putting a non-binding spending cap on the ballot.

Sujit CanagaRetna, a tax and budget expert at the Council of State Governments , said Colorado's experience with its strictest-in-the-nation spending limit "pulled the wind out of the sails" of the campaign in other states.

Colorado voters in 2005 decided to suspend for five years their Taxpayer Bill of Rights, commonly known as TABOR, agreeing the limits were cutting too deeply into education, transportation and other programs. "TABOR strangled the state budget slowly, squeezing tighter every year, said Nick Johnson, who heads up the state fiscal project of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

TABOR ties the growth in state revenue to population plus inflation and requires the state give back to voters any extra revenue, but Johnson says that formula doesn't capture the growth in the costs of the goods and services that the state buys. So each year, he says, the state is forced to spend a little less and the gap grows over time.

TABOR opponents say Colorado dropped from 35th to 49th in the nation for K-12 school funding because of TABOR. Supporters, however, credit TABOR for making Colorado an economic powerhouse in the West.

Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union , which promotes state spending caps, rejects the notion that the low number of TABOR-like ballot measures this November is a public repudiation of TABOR. "People didn't have an opportunity to have a debate on the merits of the proposal. It's premature to make a judgment call," he said.

Maine's ballot measure is the most similar to Colorado's in that it requires voter approval before taxes can be increased and applies to both revenues and expenditures by state and local governments. Nebraska and Oregon measures only apply to state expenditures and tax hikes do not require voter approval.

Track these spending limit measures and other statewide ballot measures on Stateline.org's Election guide , which also features races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Colorado 's experience with TABOR is playing prominently in all three states. In Maine, for example, supporters of the TABOR-like measure recently unveiled a television ad featuring Republican Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who in the commercials says he "wants to set the record straight" about TABOR. "The Taxpayer Bill of Rights has been a tremendous success here in Colorado - more jobs, lower taxes and young people choosing to stay in our state," the governor said, failing to add that he supported TABOR's suspension. Owens is term-limited and legally prevented from running this November.

In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D), who is running for re-election, has invited wealthy New York real estate developer Howard Rich to debate the spending limits measure that Rich helped put on the Oregon ballot. Kulongoski opposes the plan. Rich, who has served on libertarian-leaning organizations such as Americans For Limited Government, the Cato Institute, and Club for Growth State Action, declined Kulongoski's invitation.

Rich also has been a chief backer of TABOR-like measures in other states, including Maine and Nebraska, and property rights measures on several state ballots.

In Nebraska, Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Hahn opposes the "Stop Over Spending Nebraska" ballot initiative saying, "This proposal is not fiscal surgery, it is irresponsible butchery." The Associated Press reported.

CanagaRetna of the Council of State Governments predicts TABOR's "fiscal straitjacket" will likely have to be tweaked to garner more support.

Norquist disputes that TABOR is inflexible or that the measure has failed in Colorado. "Colorado shows that it can be flexible" because technically TABOR remains in effect. While Colorado voters temporarily shelved TABOR's mandate to return extra revenue to taxpayers, they kept in effect the provision that prohibits a tax hike without voters' approval. "It's still working," Norquist said.

 
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