“Sellout.” “Traitor.” And worst of all, “moderate.” These aren’t words being used to describe enemy combatants in the war on terror – they are used by some conservatives to describe legislative Republicans that have reservations about the proposed Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR).
The debate over TABOR has been co-opted by normally common sense conservative talk show hosts. If someone is “conservative,” then they favor a broad constitutional amendment to control state and local taxes and spending. If someone is “moderate,” then they resist such a plan, and likely have set fire to a hospital for puppies at some point.
On the legislative side, TABOR is being pushed by Frank Lasee, a potential congressional candidate who has been preening all around the state in favor of his plan, which he pilfered from Colorado. Colorado’s last two imports to Wisconsin, as you may remember, are Chronic Wasting Disease and disastrous ex-Colorado Rockie Jeffrey Hammonds. Lasee has grown his hair out, bought a bottle of tanning oil, and lost weight to prepare himself for the fight. In fact, he could stand to lose another 50 pounds – named Jeff Wood. Wood, as you may know, is the educationally challenged second term representative from Chippewa Falls, whose knowledge of Wisconsin has grown to the point that he can now point the state out on a map.
Support for TABOR in the state is strong – some polls suggest that 80% of citizens favor a constitutional spending limit, while support is even at 60% among Democrats. This support was barely beaten out by “Would you like a million dollars?” (81%), “Do you like pizza?” (83%), and “Would you like two million dollars?” (83.5%). This support has caused shrinkage among conservatives who normally would cringe at the idea of a heavy-handed constitutional imposition of fiscal policy on local governments.
In fact, TABOR may not be the electoral silver bullet conservatives think it is. In several races around the state in November 2004, voters had a choice between pro-TABOR and anti-TABOR candidates. Despite apparent public support for the plan, voters in Kenosha (Priebus vs. Wirch), the North Woods (Tiffany vs. Breske), and Green Bay (Drzwiecki vs. Hansen) rejected the pro-TABOR candidate. The one Republican that did pick up a seat, Dan Kapanke, was a local government official opposed to TABOR. While TABOR supporters look to Mary Panzer’s embarrassing defeat for comfort, Panzer had problems in her heavily conservative district (she is pro-choice), and her handling of the TABOR issue caused her more problems than it would have helped.
There are two camps of conservatives on TABOR – those that believe local governments work best when they can respond to the needs of their constituents on a personal level, and the “ends justify the means” conservatives, who recognize that property taxes are out of control and see an opportunity to do something at the state level. Both sides have excellent points, but the local control conservatives have absolutely nothing to apologize for in resisting TABOR.
One of the central tenets of conservatism is the idea that government works best the more locally it is administered. Conservatives resist top-down government, believing that governance works best when citizens are involved and informed. Conservatives have also traditionally recognized the sanctity of the Constitution – a limited document that can fit in your pocket, but which sets out the rules of the game. Such specific fiscal policy in the Constitution should horrify traditional conservatives, and sets the precedent that anything goes in the Constitution, as long as we can sneak it by a Democratic Governor. If fact, one Assembly member already has proposed photo identification for voting as a constitutional amendment. Can concealed carry really be far behind?
The debate over TABOR has turned into an ugly split between the Republican controlled Assembly and Senate in Wisconsin. The Assembly, laying down like a lap dog to Frank Lasee’s political ambition, is widely believed to be more pro-TABOR, although the likelihood of the votes being there is still very much in question. The Senate isn’t even close. One explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the demographics of Assembly versus Senate districts. Assembly districts are one third the size of Senate districts, therefore their constituents are more likely to be ideologically narrow. Senate districts, taking in so much more area, tend to have more diversity of thought, and therefore tend to be more moderate demographically. Plus, there’s a lot more land for the black helicopters to fly over.
As an aid to those conservative legislators who oppose TABOR but are afraid to stand up to the “conservative” talk show hosts who favor constitutional spending caps, here are some talking points:
TABOR Will Guarantee Perpetual Democratic Majorities
This year, Democrats in the previously solid Republican Colorado Legislature gained majorities in both houses for the first time in years. This would be like the Republican National Committee picking Al Sharpton to run their operations for the 2008 presidential campaign. The problem that has occurred in Colorado is identical to the one that would occur in Wisconsin – writing conservative philosophy into the Constitution removes any reason to elect conservatives to the Legislature. In effect, the Constitution becomes the only Republican anyone needs, because it is tax issues that elect Republicans.
In fact, TABOR would be in direct conflict with social conservatives. With the types of Democratic majorities it would produce in Wisconsin, you can look forward to getting an abortion at a Kwik-Trip, gay marriage will be mandatory for single people over 25, and the only weapon allowed in your home will be a salad shooter. Taxes are an important piece to the puzzle, but not the only one – and questions of taxation have to be settled in elections for Republicans to retain control, not in the Constitution.
TABOR Saves Programs That Are Bad for Property Taxpayers
If government in Wisconsin was reformulated from scratch, there’s no way the current system of local aid would make the cut. Local governments blame the state for high property taxes, for not providing enough aid. The state government blames local governments for not making the tough choices in setting their local budgets. In the meantime, property taxpayers don’t know whom to blame for escalating taxes with the inter-governmental finger pointing.
The only way to fix this quandary is to consolidate taxing and spending decisions at the local level, which means elimination of shared revenue and allowing more local taxing options (such as a local sales tax). The government that raises the tax should spend the tax, to provide more accountability and clarity to taxpayers.
TABOR would make changing to such a system impossible, even though it represents a shift in taxation, rather than an increase. Similarly, taking technical colleges off the property tax would save 7.5% on property taxes – but would require increased funding at the state level prohibited by TABOR. Two thirds funding for schools would have been impossible. Streamlined sales tax? Over.
Past Democratic legislatures have found non-constitutional ways to control local revenues in areas where they were needed. When school property taxes were increasing 10% per year, the Democratically controlled Legislature worked with Tommy Thompson in implementing school revenue caps, which have saves billions in property tax dollars, have yet to be repealed, and have done nothing to deteriorate the quality of our school districts.
“Save Me From Myself”
During the Thompson era, state spending routinely increased 7%, 8%, or even 10% per year (much of this due to two-thirds funding of school
districts). In fact, the 1999-2000 budget saw a nearly 13% increase in the general-purpose budget (47 Assembly Republicans voted for this budget, including John Gard, while all but one Senate Republican voted against it). So Republicans who routinely voted for Thompson budgets to now insist that TABOR is necessary are merely engaging in a hypocritical tantrum.
In fact, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, who has been lobbying for TABOR, issued a press release calling for more Medicaid spending, to keep insurance costs for employers down. Never mind that TABOR would make this increased investment in Medicaid NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE at the state level.
It would be interesting to see a Republican run for Governor on a pro-TABOR platform. The pitch would go something like this:
“We need TABOR because we can’t trust the Legislature or the Governor to limit property taxes. In fact, you can’t trust me as your future Governor to limit your property taxes, so we need to pass a bill that I support, and is necessary because I can’t be trusted to sign a property tax freeze into law. While I support property tax relief, it is likely that I will become a tool for the teacher’s union and other big spending special interest groups.”
Wisconsin Republicans have lost sight of the true adversary in the property tax debate – Governor Jim Doyle. While the Assembly and Senate fight about TABOR, Jim Doyle, The Indian Tribes, and Stan Johnson’s mustache will waltz into office for a second term. While Frank Lasee tours the state to convince people how incompetent state legislators are, he is himself setting a shining example for his theory.
Whatever the final outcome of the TABOR discussion, Republicans still should get more credit for holding down property taxes than their flaccid Democrat counterparts. In the face of a mounting public outcry over property taxes, the Democrats either oppose property tax relief or propose more state funding for local services, which only serves to further exacerbate the problem.
Property taxes in Wisconsin are too high and are growing too fast. With this, there is no disagreement. The solution, however, lies not in a permanent constitutional amendment, but in citizen activism and responsible legislators. Conservatives who support local control should not cower to talk show hosts, but stand up for true representative government.
In March of 2004, in paying tribute to the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, columnist George Will recognized Moynihan as the “premier intellectual in the U.S. Senate.” Will then followed up that this is akin to being “the tallest building in Topeka.”
It is time for legislators with big picture perspective and philosophical courage to stand up to TABOR. Politics is an argument – TABOR is a muzzle.