Anyone who works in government understands that some ideas take many years to bear fruit. Others seem to spend years on the verge of a breakthrough, then lose their momentum before they accomplish very much. That appears to have happened to the movement for constitutional limits on state taxation and spending. Every state that had a chance to vote on such a limit last year voted no. Given the idea's recent lack of popularity, some are wondering whether it has lost not only its momentum but its salience altogether.
Those who favor limiting the size and spending capacity of government have been promoting their ideas for two decades. More than two dozen states have enacted some form of fiscal limitation since New Jersey led the way in 1976. But most statutory spending limits are so porous as to be more or less meaningless. The law that had the potential to create a revolution was Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which was approved by voters in 1992 and became part of the state constitution. The measure limited increases in state spending to the rates of inflation and population growth.
It did that quite effectively, and led to speculation that Republican Governor Bill Owens, one of the original proponents of TABOR, might ride the issue to national prominence. But Owens gradually became convinced that the rigidly drawn TABOR, in conjunction with a constitutional mandate to spend ever greater amounts on education, was making it difficult for the state to fund needed public services. In 2005, Owens and legislators from both parties helped persuade voters to suspend the law for five years.
This past November, voters turned down TABOR initiatives in Maine, Nebraska and even Oregon, where the electorate usually embraces any anti-tax initiative that comes its way. Similar measures were thrown off the ballot in five other states, mostly for technical reasons.
It's possible that battles will yet be rejoined in some states where voters haven't had their say, and TABOR supporters insist they haven't surrendered. "I don't think the defeats will end the movement," says Michael New, a TABOR proponent who teaches public policy at the University of Alabama. He says the lesson of November's losses is that it's important to showcase local support for the idea, rather than relying on the national groups that have promoted it.
These groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, now say their efforts were unfairly undercut by the "scare tactics" of their opponents, who trotted out horror stories of what could happen to government services if the limits were passed (often citing what had occurred in Colorado). "Taxpayers support it, but they weren't given a real, true picture of what these TABORs would have done," complains Peggy Venable, AFP's state director in Texas.
But taxpayers have spoken. And, while it's certainly true that TABOR opponents had more money to spend on their campaigns than supporters did, there's no reason to think that dynamic would change in future campaigns. What's more, given the growing opposition to the idea among business groups and many politicians, it's hard to know how TABOR is going to replenish its support.
Those who favor limits on government may find their resources are better spent mapping out and pursuing a new strategy, rather than flogging an idea whose moment has passed.