The trouble with TABOR

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The trouble with TABOR

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on January 27, 2005.

The Colorado Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, is deeply flawed. It allows far too much government spending. TABOR should be fixed by limiting state growth only to inflation, rather than inflation plus population growth, as is currently the case.

TABOR should also be reformed by allowing voter-approved tax hikes only with a supermajority. Now, politicians can spend as much money as they want, so long as they get more than half the voters to agree.

But of course the reforms I favor are not the ones popular among the political class, its sycophants in the media and left-leaning Boulderites. Instead, Democrats act as though TABOR doesn't already allow voter-approved spending increases. Rather than simply going to the voters and asking for more money for specific projects, as TABOR already allows, they want to weaken TABOR by allowing the state to automatically spend more money every year into the future.

I heard one apoplectic lady claim on a television news show that "there won't be state government" if TABOR requires budget cuts for another year. Such delusional outbursts suggest a blindly emotional opposition to TABOR.

State Sen. Mark Hillman pointed out at a Jan. 20 meeting sponsored by the Colorado Union of Taxpayers (CUT) that total state spending has increased every year under TABOR and it will increase again this year.

"Me too" conservatives in the state legislature also support a tax hike, though a smaller one than Democrats want. For example, while Hillman argued against large tax hikes, he said the anticipated cuts to certain programs over the next couple years, at the same time when some tax revenues are refunded to the people who actually earn that money, would be "difficult to defend in the court of public opinion." But it's difficult to win a debate that's already been conceded.

Rep. Kevin Lundberg, who also spoke at the CUT event, said, "I'm here to defend TABOR." Yet he then supported a "dollar for dollar trade" between limiting spending hikes on K-12 education via Amendment 23 and allowing more spending under TABOR. State Treasurer Mike Coffman offered a similar position.

The president of CUT, Penn Pfiffner, thought repealing Amendment 23 would be "politically infeasible," but taxpayers should not be asked to shovel over more money. He saw the budget crunch as a "great way to force government at all levels to... set priorities."

Some people have the crazy idea that increased state spending is inherently desirable. Yet there's good reason to dramatically cut state spending and then limit its growth more strictly than TABOR allows.

People have a right to use their income as they see fit. If people want to give some of their money to higher education, medical charities, and so on, they are perfectly free to do so. If they want to spend their money on other things, that's their right. Most of the state budget goes to fund some welfare program or other, including welfare for education. That means charity programs and other worthy causes that aren't sanctioned by the state are disadvantaged.

For a time last year I worked on Bruce's failed petition to expand tax cuts. A few people told me they want to pay more taxes. Yet when I suggested that they are free to send more money to the state government, they became hostile. Instead, they want to force other people to pay higher taxes.

What is the proper function of government? In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson praised "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government..."

Though Jefferson himself was not entirely consistent on the matter, the principles he described support the view that people have a right to decide how to use their income, and the majority ought not force the minority to fund programs the minority finds offensive, counterproductive or less important than other projects. Most state spending could be cut without limiting the ability of the state to "restrain men from injuring one another."

Another reason state spending should grow slower than the population is that we should expect state government to achieve economies of scale in its operations. That is, each new person to the state should require fewer resources.

Finally, as that part of the economy that remains free continues to build the capital stock and thereby increase real wages over time, we should expect people to be able to do more for themselves. At the same time, richer people have more money to voluntarily donate to charity. Unfortunately, government tends to grow not in accordance with need, but rather in accordance with the ability of politicians and interest groups to plunder the productive class. Thus, as people get richer, government spending should remain level or even decline, yet spending skyrockets. And this siphoning of resources limits long-term economic progress.

Even if TABOR were strengthened by limiting state growth only to inflation and requiring a supermajority for all tax hikes, it would take many decades for the relative size of government to shrink to a reasonable size. If TABOR is weakened, even more that labor has earned will be unjustly taken.

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