'03 Elections a Mixed Bag for Liberty
by Ari Armstrong, November 5, 2003
Local Tax Issues
Libertarians earned a huge victory with the repeal of the Littleton grocery tax. Notably, the Littleton effort was the only one in the state to take the offensive for liberty. Everywhere else, liberty advocates were on the defensive. And that fact alone explains why we're often moving in the wrong direction.
Most local tax increases passed in the Denver metro area, lending credibility to Paul Danish's theory that the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights is actually a useful tool to increase some types of taxes. True, only 2 of 6 special-district mill and bond issues passed. At the county level, Arapahoe passed an open-space tax, Boulder got a so-called "worthy cause" tax and a new jail (but rejected a revenue retention measure), Douglas passed road bonds, and Jefferson passed a "mental health tax" (while El Paso defeated a similar proposal).
At the city level (in the Metro area), I count 18 instances where tax (or bond or revenue) increases passed, and only four cases in which a tax was defeated (based on the November 5 Rocky Mountain News. Some items are ambiguous, such as "add police commander" or "join RTD district," so I didn't count those).
The Westminster sales tax was increased. Against my work and a letter printed in the Denver Post, proponents of the tax mailed three full-color pamphlets to city households. The budget against the tax increase was zero; the budget in favor of it was many thousands of dollars. And it was not a run-away vote: 8,506 people, 43% of the voters, opposed the measure.
Kudos to Brian Schwartz, who argued forcefully against the alleged "worthy cause" tax in Boulder. The November 5 Daily Camera quoted his previously published position: "By seeking tax dollars, Referendum 1A supporters are implicitly saying that their causes are 'more worthy' than others, and government should force people to support them."
The only pattern I can see is that many voters seem to be pragmatic. That is, they're more likely to support a tax increase for a specific project they like. At least the Westminster tax is roughly related to what government should actually be doing: protecting people and their property. For their pragmatism, though, many voters obviously don't realize spending their neighbors' money without their permission is wrong. Tax increases in Jefferson and Boulder counties will be spent on worthy charities, but the ends do not justify the means. Taking money from people by force violates individual rights, and it takes charity out of the realm of voluntary interaction and into the realm of coercive politics.
Libertarians must recognize this pragmatic streak and work with it. Libertarians simply must go on the offensive and run more tax-cutting measures like the one in Littleton. The brilliance of the Littleton effort is that is appealed to a broad segment of voters. That's what libertarians have to do -- find the issues that resonate with people's sense of fairness. Offensive measures serve another purpose (beyond the obvious one of lowering taxes): they tie up the advocates of the massive state. Every dollar and minute of time the statists spend to fight against pro-liberty measures is a dollar and minute less they have to promote bloated government.
Update: The November 6 Rocky Mountain News points out, "Colorado voters approved the majority of school tax questions put before them this Election Day, for a total of $705 million in school bond issues and $55 million in tax rate hikes for operating expenses. In the metro area, three of five districts - DPS, Douglas County and Cherry Creek - were successful at the polls, but Brighton and Commerce City school districts lost."
Three terrible state-wide initiatives went down to defeat: Referendum A, Amendment 32, and Amendment 33. Thus, Coloradans won't have to pay more for unspecified water projects or property taxes, and they won't suffer the enshrinement of corporate welfare in the state's constitution. That's good news for libertarians.
The bad news, again, is that all the measures were bad. There was nothing to vote for that would have increased liberty.
Bad news for property rights advocates: Summit County and Greeley passed smoking bans, and Pueblo City failed to remove some existing restrictions. For more on this issue, see the following articles.
The November 5 Denver Post reports, "The last-minute flood [of ballots] helped push several counties close to a 50 percent voter-turnout rate, including Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties. Boulder set a record for an off-year election with about 75,000 ballots cast of 130,000 voters receiving ballots [about 58%]." But is "flood" really the correct adjective, when fewer than half of those eligible to vote bothered to do so, even though in most cases a ballot was mailed to them? Remember also that not everyone eligible to register to vote does so.
Increasing voter turnout is not necessarily a good thing. Few voters know much about the issues, and marginal voters are the most ignorant. The Rocky Mountain News included a humorous comment in its lead editorial: "[W]e'd like to assume the surprisingly large minority of voters who supported [Denver's] Initiative 101 -- mandating money be spent to increase peacefulness -- were only kidding. Weren't they?" Well, probably not. 28,361 voters, 32% of the total, supported that silly proposal.
I suspect the turnout among government employees is much higher than the average. Thus, the more government grows, the easier it is to pass tax increases.
Omnipresent is the American quasi-religious worship of democracy. Taking money from people by force is a crime, until that magical number of 50% agree to allow it. The Camera quotes Kelley Rogers: "We're pleased to see that Boulder County voters agree that it's important to support families in need even in difficult economic times." But it's all too easy to confuse Rogers' short-hand with reality: "Boulder County voters" didn't agree on anything. Most voters -- 42,557 -- agreed to impose the tax on everyone in the area. 28,210 voters opposed the measure. Counting those who didn't vote, only a minority of residents supported the tax.
But the percent of support is irrelevant to the moral issue: those who choose not to support the charities in question, for whatever reason, ought not be forced to do so. Nor does voter approval imply a sound economic basis (or any other reasoned basis) for policy. The real shame is that so many issues outside the proper scope of governance are up for vote in the first place. But at least in the short run, libertarians interested in politics need to evaluate the landscape with open eyes and formulate strategies to mitigate the damage and, whenever possible, expand freedom.
At least now we can sleep better until the legislature meets in January.