Tax battle tests Colorado's soul

(John Andrews in the Denver Post, Oct. 16) Voting is underway on a law transferring several billion dollars from Colorado families and employers into government, Referendum C, along with a plan to borrow another couple of billion for government projects, Referendum D. I expect that when the votes are counted, the common sense of citizens will result in their saying no to this largest-ever proposal for increasing our tax burden and financing our infrastructure by credit card.

The battle over C & D is more than a referendum on spending. Even if the ballot issues lose, after all, the state general fund will still grow 23% by 2011. Most people wouldn’t consider that a starvation budget. Yet this debate over moderate growth of government with stable taxes, versus rapid growth of government with higher taxes, also raises deeper questions about who we are and where we’re going.

What kind of people are we? What kind of state do we want to be? Those are the bedrock issues. “We have a vision for community. Do you?” A woman who favors C & D, after relating the difficulties of caring for her mother and grandmother, challenged me in those words at a forum. We do, I replied – but our vision convinces us this tax and borrowing plan is the wrong answer.

Her question, earnest and yet (in my opinion) mistaken, sent me back to Robert Nisbet’s classic 1953 book, The Quest for Community. Nisbet contrasts the more American sense of community, “a political and economic context within which the spontaneous associations of men are the primary sources of freedom and order,” with the more European approach “that seeks to enmesh the individual in a custodial network of detailed rules for his security and society’s stability.” Bingo.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was enacted a dozen years ago on the instinctive recognition of Coloradans that the relentless expansion of this law-driven, tax-fed “custodial network” must be restrained, if we are to protect the “spontaneous associations” required for human flourishing and true community.

Citizens knew, back in 1992, that over-government is unwise though seductive. They established TABOR to provide fiscal guardrails so politicians wouldn’t run the budget off the cliff. This year they will, I believe, vote to keep the guardrails in place. Look, they will say to the legislature and the governor, you already have an ever-growing stream of revenue out of our pockets -- do your job and prioritize better.

The ominously bipartisan plea from our elected leaders – be like all the other states, spend everything we take in, tax ourselves rich, goodies for everyone, don’t let the sky fall – does not seem to be working, despite millions in campaign spending and years of media drumbeat. Maybe those other states and nations, those custodially smothered paradises of California and New York, Germany and France, are what Colorado’s people would rather not be like. Maybe we have a more American vision of community.

The American way includes limited constitutional government, prosperity through free enterprise, innovation through liberty, accountability through competition, and compassion through voluntary charity – with a safety net but not a hammock. Shoveling more dollars into the huge, unreformed bureaucracy of today’s state government would disserve all of those proven principles. We shouldn’t do it. There’s a better way.

Outstanding schools? Instead of C & D, push for 65% of every dollar into the classroom, curb the teachers union. Excellent universities? Instead of C & D, expand financial aid, price at true cost, disempower the tenured radicals. And at every level, preschool to grad school, create an education marketplace through vouchers.

Better highways? The future is toll authorities (invisible like your wireless fees), not the outmoded gas tax. Adequate prisons? The future is price-competitive, non-union contractors. Health care for the poor, and the rest of us? Personal choice beats Big Brother every time; you know that.

The TV spot claiming “Colorado is in trouble” was off target. Colorado is at a crossroads. Low taxes and a strong TABOR honor the spirit of ’76, “Don’t tread on me.” Unlimited spending invites what Tocqueville feared, citizens increasingly reduced to “a flock of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd.” Choose well, neighbors.