TABOR Truth Tour visits Maine

(John Andrews in the Denver Post, April 2) Devastation Prevarication. That might be, as Dave Barry used to say, a good name for a heavy metal band. But it’s no way to make public policy. Lies are being told in a number of states about Colorado's allegedly “devastating” experience with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, TABOR, since 1992. Such nonsense needs to stop. “TABOR was run out of Colorado. Why now bring it to Maine?” So read the headline on a union flyer in Portland when I arrived last month for the TABOR Truth Tour, organized by local activists Mary Adams and Bill Becker. Their successful petition drive, giving Mainers a chance to enact tax limits next fall, has the spending lobby panicked. I brought testimony of how such limits are benefiting Coloradans.

As we campaigned, the “run out” myth was easily dispelled, since the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights stands unchanged in our state constitution. Voters’ consent in 2005 to forego five years of tax refunds was an exercise of TABOR, not a repudiation. While I didn’t support that proposal, Colorado’s people did – and polls indicate Maine’s people want the same fiscal final say.

Voter approval of all taxes and debt, spending growth limited to population and inflation, refund of excess revenues to taxpayers, an override option, and an emergency reserve – those five elements of TABOR remain as fiscal guardrails for Colorado budgets, even after Referendum C. My Maine hosts wrote all five into their ballot issue nearly verbatim (adding, for recession insurance, only a rainy day fund and deleting only the “ratchet”).

Maine’s situation today resembles Colorado’s in 1986, the year our taxpayer revolt began. A sluggish economy, unrestrained government growth, and legislative indiscipline have pushed citizens into action. Sixty thousand signed petitions for policy-institute director Becker (think Jon Caldara as preppie) and small-town grandmother Adams (think Douglas Bruce with charm).

Mary Adams says drily that her pony would never bridle itself – and neither will politicians. Statehouse Democrats passed a phony 3% spending limit, then goosed the budget 11%. Property-tax relief was promised, then cancelled. Maine’s burden of sales, income, and property taxes is 70% to 90% heavier than ours. Business is hurting. People are steamed.

Now it’s devastation prevarication time. Opponents, the usual coalition of 75 special interest groups, are out to scare Mainers with claims that “TABOR [has] dug a hole from which Colorado has been unable to escape.... It shrinks government to an ineffective size and in doing so, cuts critical government programs.” Those cuts, according to a Portland Press Herald editorial, included “slash[ing] funds for emergency services, pension funds, and Medicaid.”

The shrinkage bugaboo was pushed in Maine by our own former state Rep. Brad Young, who for some reason objects to a bigger private sector. Touring behind him, I acknowledged that Colorado government’s reasonable growth under TABOR has been outpaced by overall economic growth; but why is that bad? Tough budgets after 2001, I patiently explained, were due to the recession, not to TABOR. Medicaid was slowed, not slashed. And tax limits hardly caused the PERA mess.

Truth-telling is slow work; spooky fantasies of self-strangulation sell better, especially up there in the land of Stephen King. Yet most Maine folks, like most Coloradans, have enough country common sense – Mary Adams, meet Ken Chlouber – to know a ghost story when they hear one. The spending lobby’s bogeymen simply don’t pass the giggle test.

For example, as Bill Becker of the Maine Heritage Policy Center points out, between 1990 and 2005 our state’s gain in population was greater than his state’s whole population. Our total state spending grew from $10 billion in 1999 to $16.5 billion this year. Maine is near the bottom in job creation and personal income growth; we’re near the top. If that’s devastation, jokes Bill, his state is ready for some.

Could it be Colorado is doing something right? Might TABOR’s brake on bureaucracy, just conceivably, be an accelerator for prosperity? Maine citizens think so. Same in Oklahoma and Ohio, where TABOR-style limits are on this year’s ballot. Same in a dozen other states where “Stop Over-Spending” proposals are moving. Devastate me some more, Gov. Owens. This doesn’t hurt a bit.