Taxpayer Bill of Rights Movement Gains Momentum

Published November 1, 2004

If anyone in Wisconsin politics thought the tax revolt was going away, that person was wrong.

In fact, rather than dying out, it appears to be spreading. The drive for constitutional spending limits–the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR)–is going nationwide.

In Wisconsin, that drive began more than six years ago, when I started working on a constitutional amendment modeled after the one Colorado voters added to their constitution by means of a popular referendum in 1992. The idea didn’t really take off in Wisconsin until much later in the decade, following the first shots of a taxpayer revolt.

Governor’s Veto Initiated Revolt

The first tangible sign of this revolt followed Democrat Governor Jim Doyle’s veto of a popular bill that would have “frozen” property taxes, allowing local governments to increase their property tax levies by only the rate of new construction. A new state senator, also a Democrat, flip-flopped on the issue, first voting for the bill, then supporting the governor’s veto. The public was outraged.

That senator lost to a Republican in what had been a traditionally Democrat Assembly seat in southern Milwaukee County. Following that, a referendum to raise school taxes in a moderately liberal part of central Wisconsin was defeated by a 4 to 1 margin.

Republican leaders promised to bring the property tax freeze back for another vote. But the freeze has two basic problems. First, the governor would simply veto it again. Second, it would remain in effect for only three years.

Calls for Stronger Curbs

People have begun turning their attention toward a permanent solution: constitutional limits on spending growth for all governmental entities in Wisconsin, with the option of a referendum to override limits or raise tax rates–the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).

None of this came as much of a surprise to me. After six years of work on TABOR, I could see the time was right.

The need for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights in Wisconsin is obvious, and it goes beyond our ranking as the fifth-highest-taxed state in the nation. Government spending in Wisconsin grew from 17.5 to 21 percent of personal income between 1974 and 2000, according to University of Wisconsin Professor Andrew Reschovsky. Government spending is consuming a larger and larger share of our income, leaving less and less in people’s pockets.

The solution is simple: Take the power away from those few who control the government budgets, and give it to the taxpayers who have to pay the bills.

Historically, Wisconsin is a state one would expect to take this step. In the late nineteenth century, Wisconsin political icon Robert “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette launched the Progressive movement when he broke with the establishment over what he felt were too-close ties to special interests in banking and big business.

In the tradition of LaFollette, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is an attempt to take some power from the government and return it to the people. Growth in spending would be constitutionally limited. The only way for the government to spend more than the limits allow, or to raise tax rates, or to borrow large sums, would be to ask the people’s permission in a referendum.

TABOR Movement Spreading

TABOR threatens to upset the relationship between government and spending interests. The usual suspects–public employee unions, in particular–are playing Chicken Little and predicting dire consequences should TABOR become law.

But disgust over the status quo is alive and well in Wisconsin, and it is gaining steam in other states, too. Twenty-six states have some form of limit on taxes, spending, or both, but only one state–Colorado–has comprehensive, constitutional limits.

Today, people in several states are working on TABOR-like constitutional amendments, in Arizona, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and elsewhere. There’s even talk of crafting one for the federal government.

Success anywhere will strengthen the movement by proving that limiting government does not mean disaster, contrary to what those who oppose the Taxpayer Bill of Rights would have us believe.

The sky is not falling. In fact, I believe a well-crafted, constitutional, Taxpayer Bill of Rights would clear the skies admirably.

Frank Lasee ([email protected]) is the Republican representative for the 2nd Assembly District in Wisconsin.