07 December 2009

Colo. Voters Face Starve The Beast Measures

Colorado voters will consider at least two anti-tax measures in the 2010 election.

One measure simply cuts taxes and user's fees by large amounts ($1 billion per year), at a time when the state budget is already experiencing deep cuts and is very close to be overconstrained (i.e. put in a situation where it is impossible to craft a budget in compliance with all applicable laws). The state's general fund budget is currently about $7 billion per year in round numbers. Where does the money go?

Over 95.0 percent of General Fund department appropriations is spent on the largest six departments (Education, Health Care Policy and Financing, Higher Education, Corrections, Human Services, and Judicial). Over 60.0 percent of spending is in two departments alone: K-12 Education accounts for over 40.0 percent of total State General Fund spending and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing which operates Medicaid and Children’s Basic Health Plan accounts for over 20.0 percent.

The state constitution greatly limits spending cuts on K-12 education, so the revenue cuts implied by this measure would produce a roughly 25% across the board cut in other areas (or even deeper cuts in programs to make up for smaller cuts in others). Medicaid is about 50% federally funded and has federal mandates, so cuts there also reduce state revenues and deep cuts end Colorado's eligibility for any federal Medicaid dollars. Big cuts to the corrections budget in the short term are very difficult to attain without massive executive clemency to allow for early release of prisoners. Colorado is already has very low higher education funding compared to other states. Human services funding helps the poor, often the direly poor.

This ballot initiative is a classic manifestation of the "starve the beast" philosophy that holds that government spending is always bad so cutting taxes is always good. Ponies for everyone fiscal policy doesn't work.

The other measure appears to be designed to lower property taxes (implicitly, largely at the expense of public schools), but is so poorly drafted that Republican Josh Penry has mocked it, and few observers are sure what it would really mean if adopted. It also appears to reverse debrucing decisions made by local voters in a long series of individually considered and approved local measures. Reduced property tax revenues also implies increased state K-12 education funding obligations. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Despite their flaws, any ballot initiative approved by a majority of voters in a statewide vote will become law.

Both measures would have been dead on arrival in the state legislative process. The Colorado General Assembly has to have balanced budgets that meet all legal constraints imposed upon them, and the big tax cut measure because it doesn't offer spending cuts or make possible a balanced legal budget, wouldn't cut it. The Colorado General Assembly also had a staff of highly competent professional bill drafters whose products, when considered by legislators, are at least comprehensible.

Once again, both measures show the fundamental flaws in our my way or the highway approach to the ballot initiative process in Colorado. Presidentially negotiated treaties are the only kind of legislation that any legislative body in the U.S. is required to consider on an up or down basis in the form it is introduced in the U.S., and those require two-thirds support in the U.S. Senate.

There is something to be said for requiring voter approval of certain kinds of legislation. But, there is very little to be said for removing legislative proposals from the deliberative process as citizen initiatives do. Even very good ideas usually benefit from refinement from a group of informed people who represent our citizens before reaching final form.

Only a few ballot initiatives are approved, many of those face successful legal challenges, and some ballot initiatives are well drafted. But, it takes only a little very bad legislation, even well intentioned bad legislation, to do great harm to our state.


Dave Barnes said...

This "eliminate all taxes and fees on cellphones, pagers, landline telephones, cable, satellite and Internet services." will cause Prop 101 to pass.

Every month Qwest will help campaign for it by delivering phone bills that include these insignificant, but hugely annoying taxes/fees.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Polling shows that outrage over taxes is at an all time low. And, it isn't hard to make a powerful TV ad that shows what $1 billion in budget cuts would do to the state. So, I don't think that Prop. 101 will pass, although it may get decent percentage support that encourages another try.

Qwest doesn't like the charges and has lobbied against them in isolation, but I actually wouldn't be surprised to see it send out mail disavowing Proposition 101 before the election.