Initiatives do taxpayers no favors

by | Oct 20, 2008 | Capitol Review, Notes

“Government is the great fiction through which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.” — Frederic Bastiat.

Contrary to popular belief, the citizen initiative process is not inherently – or even incidentally – conservative.  Like government, the initiative is merely a reflection of the attitudes and principles of the people.

Today, the people are not conservative – skeptical, irascible or cynical, perhaps, but not conservative.

Long ago when the populace did not expect much from government, government’s ineptitude caused fewer problems.  Now, as more people expect government to do more, government’s “doing” constantly causes newer, bigger problems to replace the older, smaller ones it set out to solve.

One day, people will surely recognize that, as P.J. O’Rourke says, “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Then, perhaps, they will finally rise up and say to their elected officials — of both parties: “I accept that we will always have problems and inequality, with or without government, but because you take my hard-earned money and squander it on bridges to nowhere and feckless financial bailouts, I prefer to keep my paycheck and cut yours.”

Today, voters are more likely to use the initiative process to constrain and burden each other than to limit government.

In Colorado, the last initiative that clearly protected the rights of the people and constrained government was the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, passed in 1992. Like it or not, TABOR undeniably shifted power to the people by giving them a right to vote on tax increases and away from government by constraining its ability to spend.

In the 16 years since, most enacted initiatives have made government bigger, increased the burden on taxpayers, and reduced the freedoms of the people.
Two initiatives on this year’s ballot, Amendments 51 and 58, would increase state government spending by more than $500 million a year and lock in existing government spending on another $500 million.

Amendment 51 would increase the state sales tax to provide a new guaranteed entitlement at taxpayer expense for the developmentally disabled. Moreover, it would require that state government spend these new funds, plus all money currently budgeted for the developmentally disabled, on these programs and nothing else in the future.

A few years back we were told that state government’s budget crisis was the product of conflicting inflexible spending mandates.  Apparently, advocates of Amendment 51 weren’t paying attention, because this is another inflexible spending mandate.

Perhaps more should be spent on programs for the developmentally disabled.  If so, it should be up to the legislature to prioritize and reduce spending on less worthwhile programs.

Next, there’s Amendment 58 which would increase energy taxes by $321 million a year to pay, mostly, for Gov. Ritter’s new college scholarship program. While this tax will be collected by oil and gas companies, anyone who understands Economics 101 knows that corporations have no choice but to pass along new taxes to consumers.

Finally, there’s Referendum O which offers a glimmer of hope for fewer such shenanigans in the future.  Colorado’s constitution looks more like a phone book than a simple statement of principle.  Ref O increases the amount of signatures needed for a constitutional amendment and requires those signatures to come from all seven congressional districts.

To encourage amendments to statutes instead, Ref O would allow more time to collect signatures and prohibit the legislature from amending citizen initiatives for five years, except with a two-thirds vote.

Though the initiative process provides a necessary check on recalcitrant government, it is all too susceptible to those who simply want more from government but want someone else to pay for it.

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Quote of the Day

Public school students are not to be allowed a voluntary, student-initiated invocation at football games. However, while upholding the right of a locality to regulate exotic dancing, the justices declared such exhibits a type of “expressive” behavior entitled to considerable protection. Perhaps the students’ prayer would have met constitutional muster if their worship had taken the form of a nude dance.

— Don Feder

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