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by Neal Thompson, AARP Bulletin, October 21, 2009
Voters in Maine and Washington decide Nov. 3 on anti-tax ballot measures that opponents believe will cause fiscal disaster in states already rocked by recession.
Maine and Washington are the tip of the iceberg. The fight against so-called TABOR efforts (a small-government concept known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights) is expected to escalate in 2010, when similar measures might rise in a dozen states, prompted by frustration over the gloomy economy.
“It’s going to rear its ugly head again next year,” said Michael Murray, AARP’s senior director of planning and evaluation for state operations. “This issue is starting to surface in multiple states. It’s just not a good picture.”
TABOR initiatives are expected on ballots next year in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Wyoming.
The Maine and Washington initiatives both seek to cap the amount of revenues that state, county and local governments could collect into their general funds. Unless voters specifically approved new spending, the caps would only increase to reflect rises in inflation and population growth. Any revenues collected above the caps (through taxes or fees) would have to be used to reduce property taxes.
Proponents in both states say the intent is to limit government spending; opponents acknowledge that, on the surface, the concept has voter appeal.
“Who wouldn’t want fewer taxes?” said Murray.
But the initiatives on the ballots in Maine and Washington are seen as dangerously restrictive by opponents. Because the caps would be set at 2009 levels, when both states have already made deep spending cuts due to the recession, the initiatives could lead to long-term damage to public schools, hospitals, libraries, nursing homes and adult day health centers.
“We’re not going to have the resources we need to climb out of this recession,” said Nancy B. Kelleher, the AARP Maine state director.
Things will get worse before they get better. Maine expects a $765 million budget shortfall in 2011; Washington faces a $2.1 billion gap. Both states have already cut health, education, services to the elderly and disabled, and the state workforce, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In Washington, Initiative 1033 was filed by an anti-tax group whose co-leader, Tim Eyman, said he was encouraged by a recent poll that found 45 percent of likely voters would support the initiative, with 32 percent against and 22 percent undecided. But Doug Shadel, AARP Washington state director, said the gap has been narrowing as a coalition of 200 groups raised $2.5 million to ramp up its TV advertising. Among the donors: national labor unions and Microsoft Corp. cofounder Bill Gates.
“When people find out what this is—and when they find out Eyman is behind it—support erodes dramatically,” Shadel said, noting Eyman’s many previous tax-cutting efforts. Shadel said most newspaper editorials and many business leaders oppose the initiative. “We’ve been encouraged by that.”
Eyman’s website argues, “Property taxes keep going higher and higher and government keeps getting bigger and bigger. The people are losing control.”
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce opposes I-1033 as “a truly bad idea [that] puts a straitjacket on revenue during the recession.”
In both states, voters may get lost in the clutter of multiple initiatives on the ballots. Maine and Washington each have equally controversial gay marriage referenda on their ballots, which could drive turnout but is also making it difficult for opponents of the TABOR initiatives to get their message to voters.
“The competition for other issues on the ballot has taken the spotlight off of this,” Kelleher said of Question 4. “We’re very concerned.”
Maine voters rejected a similar TABOR measure in 2006 by 8 percentage points, but a recent poll showed voters in favor this year.
In Maine, proponents of Question 4 argue that government spending has kept growing even while private sector jobs have shrunk. “It has grown far beyond taxpayers’ ability to pay for it,” David Crocker, head of the TABOR Now campaign, told the Bangor Daily News.
AARP officials are hoping that older voters will have an outsize impact on these initiatives, because they are more likely to vote, especially in off-year elections. In 2008, voters 50 and older made up 49 percent of Washington voters and 44 percent of the Maine electorate.
“In any election the senior vote is important, but it’s particularly important in an off-year election,” Shadel said. “So it’s really critical that the older voters get out for the election—and vote no.”
Opponents of TABOR point to Colorado for warning signs. Colorado passed a TABOR initiative in 1992, but the subsequent restriction on government revenue collection led to declines in job growth, prenatal care and education funding. Alarmed voters in 2005 passed a five-year moratorium. It ends next year, when voters will again decide for or against TABOR.
For more information about the Washington initiative, visit:
For more information about Question 4 In Maine, visit:
Neal Thompson is an author and freelance writer living in Seattle.
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