Referenda C & D offer voters tough choices

Filed under: Opinion |

As voters consider Referenda C and D on this November’s ballot, the fundamental choices they will make about state government are far more complex than the bumper stickers and 30-second commercials that proponents and opponents will use to influence their votes.

Opponents suggest that the state budget is awash in waste – ignoring the fact that the portion of the budget restricted by the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, TABOR, has fallen below 2002-03 levels for the past two years.

Their most oft-repeated evidence of this waste is Colorado Council for the Arts’ proclivity to pay for “projects” that ought to be relegated to sex shops. Those expenditures – foolish as they are – comprise just 0.000008 percent of the budget.

Proponents – especially those most reliant on government largesse – seem to suggest that state government will disintegrate unless spending is allowed to grow approximately 10 percent faster than it can under current law. This implies that Colorado’s economy is boosted when government spends $3 billion that would otherwise be spent and invested by families and businesses.

Since neither side willingly addresses the more nettlesome core issues, voters can elevate the debate by raising questions that aren’t so convenient to answer. Here are a few possibilities for stirring the pot:

Issue: When TABOR passed in 1992, it did not include any objective criteria for defining the proper size of government. Instead, the TABOR limit was calculated based upon existing tax rates and the economic conditions that existed at the time.

Aside from a measure like Referendum C, nothing exists to recalibrate the TABOR limit after a recession.

If the recession had been only half as severe, spending limited by TABOR would be roughly the same over the next five years as proposed by Referendum C – yet no vote would be necessary, TABOR would be untouched, and no one would be complaining about a “tax increase.”

Question: Should the TABOR limit ever be reset to reflect current tax rates and economic conditions? If so, when and how?

Issue: K-12 education and Medicaid comprise 73 percent of the state’s general fund budget. Over the next five years, Medicaid spending is expected to increase by 56 percent and K-12 spending is projected to grow by 33 percent.

Even if Referendum C passes, tax revenues are projected to grow by just 24 percent. If spending mandates are left untouched, the state would again soon encounter a budget deficit – even if TABOR was repealed completely.

Question: Since much of the coalition supporting Referendum C includes groups that benefit from increased spending, why should voters believe that these groups will ever work against their own self-interest to reduce out-of-control spending mandates if they have already won the TABOR changes they so desperately want?

Issue: To allow existing government services to keep pace with inflation and population requires spending increases of $300million to $400 million per year.

In 2006-07, tax revenues will increase by almost $500 million, but allowable spending will decrease because of TABOR refunds ($496 million) and Amendment 23 ($337 million).

Those figures don’t include transportation spending which has decreased from almost $1.39 billion in 2001 to $822 million this year.

Question: In the event that Referendum C fails, how do you propose that the state balance its budget and provide for adequate highway funding?

Issue: During the recession, spending on K-12 education was shielded from budget cuts by Amendment 23. General fund spending on education increased by 18.5 percent ($396 million) from 2000-01 to 2004-05.

Meanwhile, the ratchet effect of Amendment 23 caused nearly $943 million in cuts to other programs and reduced the spending base even further. Yet, Referendum C proposes to put some $1 billion more into K-12 education over the next five years.

Question: Why should taxpayers vote to put even more money into public education rather than restore funding for programs and trust funds that have been cut?

Answers to questions like these will help voters far more than campaign hyperbole and catchy bumper stickers.

Mark Hillman is state treasurer of Colorado.