Voters defang the TABOR-toothed tiger

(John Andrews in the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 3, and the Denver Post, Nov. 6) In Tuesday’s election, as far as taxpayer advocates are concerned, the Alamo fell. Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie are no more. Conservative defenders of the little guy fought valiantly, but the pro-tax forces overwhelmed them. A mighty coalition of Colorado’s establishment spent the past year warning that the world would end unless voters agreed to $3.7 billion in higher taxes and $2.1 billion in deeper debt, and it largely worked. Referendum C, the tax hike, passed with 52% of the vote. Referendum D, the companion measure for bonding, fell just short with 49.6%. Interest was strong; over a million people voted.

The background and significance of Colorado’s ballot-box budget battle were explained in a Journal editorial on Monday (“Rocky Mountain High Taxes”). Briefly, the reason politicians have to get the people’s permission on taxes and borrowing is a 1992 constitutional amendment called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR for short. TABOR limited the tax revenue the state could spend to the previous year’s level, adjusted for inflation and population. Any surplus had to be rebated to taxpayers.

TABOR has been great for our economy, but it has always galled the spending lobby. With revenues slow to recover after the 2001 recession, the empire saw its chance to strike back. Referendum C not only grows government by canceling all refunds until 2011; it also purports (unconstitutionally, many think) to loosen the revenue limit forever. TABOR is now toothless. And since over 20 states have TABOR-style proposals on the table, the vote was nationally watched.

Opponents of Referendum C counted on voters rejecting a bigger tax bite, $3,100 for the average family in the next five years, under the pressure of high prices for gasoline, home heating, health care and housing. We appealed to people’s skepticism that the Democrat-led legislature would use the new money responsibly. Polling even last weekend suggested proponents hadn’t made the sale.

But they surged to victory with the help of respected Republicans like Gov. Bill Owens, former party chairman Bruce Benson and University of Colorado president Hank Brown. Those heavy hitters outweighed the more numerous antitax Republican voices, including the current state House and Senate floor leaders, last year’s legislative presiding officers—Lola Spradley and me—and GOP county chairmen, as well as both contenders to succeed the term-limited Owens. With Democrats unified behind the tax hike and Republicans bitterly divided over it, Tuesday’s outcome had, in retrospect, a certain inevitability.

The tax hike was to be expected, especially in light of the “spend, spend, spend” message pounded out by the Colorado power structure. An unprecedented lineup insisted that the state would starve if taxpayers didn’t fork over the $3.7 billion. The five “bigs” —Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor, Big Education and Big Media—pushed the ballot issues with zealous unanimity. No editorial page withheld its endorsement. Industry groups and chambers of commerce whipped their members and wrote fat checks. The “yes” campaign outspent the “no” side at least 4 to 1. The whiff of corporate statism was in the air. With such a phalanx, it’s surprising the taxers’ winning percentage was so low.

Admittedly, though, they won fair and square. Reagan conservatives on the losing side of Referendum C can’t complain that we were robbed. We’re merely out of date. Conservatism of the Bush stripe, so much more compassionate (read: grow discretionary spending faster than Bill Clinton did), is undeniably the fashion now. The 13 years since Tabor was enacted by Colorado voters might as well be a century, so vastly has the mood changed.

Back in 1992, the broken tax pledge of President Bush’s father was a recent, stinging memory in our party, and the Gingrich revolution in Congress was still in the idealistic future. How jaded we’ve become in one short decade. Half a million of my fellow citizens here in the Rockies simply did on Tuesday what the Frist and Hastert congressional majorities have been doing for years—rev up the feel-good spending. And there was Gov. Owens, a Bush protégé and Texas-born, taking credit in front of the cameras. No Alamo sentimentality for him.

But to repeat, the people spoke. They’re OK with all that money moving from their pockets into an unreformed bureaucracy that keeps on running school systems and road systems, prison systems and medical welfare systems in a 19th- or, at best, a mid-20th-century manner. A lot of them apparently just want to be taken care of, and never mind the details. At public forums during the campaign I was struck by the dependency mentality of so many people who showed up. “What is your vision of community?” one woman scolded.

Her question sent me back to Robert Nisbet’s classic 1953 book, The Quest for Community. Nisbet contrasted 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.”

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights put teeth in Coloradans’ realization 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. The referendum now weakening those fiscal restraints is another symptom of our country veering the other way, Europe’s way—and that should concern us.

The losing side in this campaign, defiant as Davy Crockett, argued for low taxes, budget discipline and TABOR with teeth. They had the spirit of ’76, “Don’t tread on me.” Whereas the winners, with their panacea of unlimited spending, played to the civic passivity that Tocqueville chillingly foresaw: Americans as but “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which government is the shepherd.” Exaggeration? You decide.