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By: Daylin Leach
December 6, 2005

As the winds turn bitter off of the Susquehanna and we prepare to conclude perhaps the most desultory legislative session in modern history, there is one piece of proposed legislation that deserves more attention than it has received. I am speaking of what is known as “TABOR.” This is a radical proposal which, if passed, would dramatically change the way government works in Pennsylvania.

TABOR is short for “Tax-Payer Bill of Rights.” It is a concept devised and promoted by a man named Grover Norquist, a leading conservative strategist for many years. TABOR says that state government cannot spend more than what was spent in the previous year plus the rate of inflation, unless two-thirds of the legislature agrees. This may have some surface appeal, but as I shall explain shortly, what it actually does is require dramatic cuts in government spending every single year. Mr. Norquist, whom I debated this issue with at this year’s National Conference of State Legislators, makes no secret of the goal of TABOR, which is, as he puts it, to shrink government so small that you can drown it in a bathtub.

Some people surely share Mr. Norquist’s philosophy. I do not. However, I think we should at least examine what will happen if TABOR becomes law in Pennsylvania. The first thing I said would happen is that TABOR requires a large cut virtually every year. Why is that? While government would be allowed to increase its budget up to the rate of inflation, the cost of things that government pays for typically grows faster than inflation. For example, last year inflation was 2 percent. However, health care costs went up 15 percent. Mass transit went up almost 10 percent. Special education costs grew even faster.

The fact is that if TABOR was in effect this year, it would have required a $600 million cut in an already extremely tight budget. The story would be the same every year. Further, since we have a constitutional balanced budget requirement, if tax revenues are low in a bad economic year, we’d have to cut more. However, we would not have the option of making up the difference in a good year, since TABOR’s allowable spending is based on the previous year. In other words, we would see a constant ratcheting down of government spending.

All of this is not speculation on my part. We can see what’s actually happened elsewhere. In 1993, the voters of Colorado passed TABOR overwhelmingly. However, in the 10 years TABOR was in effect, things didn’t go so well. Colorado virtually eliminated funding for higher education, sending tuition rates souring. They eliminated all state support to local and regional health agencies, eliminated funds for full-day kindergarten, decreased mental health funding, leading to a 14-percent loss in overall state mental health hospital capacity and cut capital construction funds by 95 percent.

After 12 years of TABOR, Colorado ranks 50th in the nation in on-time immunization rates, ranks 47th in K-12 education funding as a share of state income, eliminated the mental health program in youth corrections, eliminated its affordable housing loans and grants program and because Medicaid reimbursement rates have failed to keep pace with medical inflation, the percent of Colorado pediatricians who treat children enrolled in Medicaid has declined from 41 percent to 24. Things got so bad that just this November, Red-State Colorado voted to refuse an almost $4 billion tax cut required under TABOR and instead demanded that the money be spent on roads, schools and sick kids.
The fact is that while many people resent taxes on some level, there are many things that just won’t get done if government doesn’t participate. Some of these things – i.e. public education, health care for those who can’t afford it, law enforcement, road construction and a safety net for the poor, etc. – are essential to a well-functioning society. I agree with Mario Cuomo’s admonition that we should have only the government we need, but we should have all the government we need.

There is one additional reason I oppose TABOR. It is anti-democratic. The theory of democracy is that someone runs for office promising to implement certain policies. If the voters like what he or she is doing, they re-elect. If not, they elect a new candidate who promises to implement different policies. Under TABOR, elections would largely no longer matter. If candidate A is elected promising to cut spending, he can implement his policies. But if A goes too far, and the voters elect candidate B who promises to spend more, it won’t matter. Candidate A may no longer be in office, but his policies will still be in effect. Candidate B will have to control 67 percent of the seats in the legislature to do what he promised. Candidate A will only have to control 34 percent to stop him. This takes a vital choice away from an already cynical electorate.

You can agree or disagree with my views on TABOR, but I urge everyone to familiarize themselves with this draconian proposal.