Voters Hold Line on Fiscal Ballot Issues

Published January 1, 2009

“Change” was an oft-heard mantra in the 2008 election campaign season, but according to a post-election analysis of more than 100 state and local ballot measures, voters often chose prudent stability—instead of change—in matters affecting their pocketbooks.

The analysis, conducted by the National Taxpayers Union, shows Americans largely rejected higher taxes, opted to keep tax limits in place, and imposed accountability measures on elected officials. Across the country, there appeared to be little enthusiasm for a new wave of tax-and-spend policies.

However, two key pro-taxpayer measures—proposals to abolish the income tax in Massachusetts and reduce income tax rates in North Dakota—were soundly defeated.


In Colorado, voters upheld the strictest tax and expenditure limit in the country despite a furious attack by opponents hoping to make it much easier to raise taxes in the state.

Known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), the law holds the growth of taxes and spending to the annual change in inflation and population, refunds excesses to taxpayers, and requires voter approval for higher taxes.

NTU and its allies faced at least a 20-1 funding disadvantage against teacher unions and corporate interests that sponsored a measure to gut TABOR, but the tax limitation forces prevailed when voters rejected the harmful changes to TABOR by a 55-45 percent vote.

Election outcomes elsewhere produced some setbacks but also many victories for taxpayer activists.

Sales Tax Results Mixed

Minnesotans gave the nod to a 3/8-cent sales tax increase for outdoors and arts programs, but Coloradans nixed a 2/10-cent sales tax hike for aid to the developmentally disabled.

In Florida, citizens rejected a plan that would have provided cities and counties greater latitude in proposing local-option sales taxes. Nevadans said “no” to a proposal to allow the state to make changes to sales and use tax laws without citizens’ prior consent.

In probably the only case this year of a state’s existing taxpayer protections moving backward, Oregon voters weakened their “double majority” rule by suspending it for property tax elections held in May and November. Oregonians also rejected a measure to make federal income taxes fully (instead of partially) deductible on state income tax returns.

Setbacks for Tax Hikers

Taxes that elected officials thought were easier to “sell” proved not to be.

In Maine, a “people’s veto” measure to repeal taxes on alcoholic and other beverages that help fund the state’s health care program passed by a 2-to-1 margin. A major hike in Colorado’s severance taxes on oil and natural gas, designed to stoke resentment over energy companies’ profits, failed overwhelmingly at the polls (58 percent to 42 percent).

Although bond issues on state ballots tended to pass, there were some notable close calls for high-speed rail in California, libraries in New Mexico, and water sanitation in Maine. A California debt plan for renewable energy projects lost.

Accountability Demanded

Government accountability measures did well in most places where they appeared on the ballot.

Arizonans stopped a 33 percent pay hike for legislators, South Dakotans rejected higher travel reimbursements for state lawmakers, and New Mexicans turned down an amendment to allow incumbent county commissioners to vote themselves a pay raise. Coloradans ended “pay for play” in state contracting, in which tax money is used for politics.

Property protections also had a good day at the ballot box, as Ohio guaranteed property owners’ groundwater rights and Nevada restricted eminent domain powers.

On the loss side, South Dakotans defeated a measure to prohibit taxpayer funds from being used for political activity, and Oregonians narrowly defeated a similar proposal.

Terms, Trains Limited

Term limits continued a successful movement through the political landscape.

Louisianans voted to allow caps on the tenure of commission and board members, South Dakotans decided to keep term limits for their state lawmakers, and residents of Memphis, Tennessee imposed length-of-service restrictions on their mayor and city council. All three measures were decided by margins of 2-to-1 or more.

At press time it appeared many local-level tax increase proposals were losing. Meals taxes in Loudoun County, Virginia and Durham County, North Carolina were defeated, and special property taxes for emergency services met defeat in Alabama’s Chilton and Tallapoosa Counties.

Voters in five of six Massachusetts municipalities rejected measures overriding a strong property tax limit known as Proposition 2-1/2. In Seattle, Washington and the Santa Fe, New Mexico region, voters approved higher taxes for light- and commuter-rail programs, but in North Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, citizens turned down such plans.

More to Come

Taxpayer watchdogs are already looking forward to upcoming campaigns.

Citizen activists organized by the group Maine Leads have already submitted 200,000 signatures to place three measures—a taxpayer’s bill of rights, a cut in the automobile tax, and a health care choice initiative—on that state’s 2009 ballot. Organizers in Florida are working to put a local government expenditure cap on the 2010 ballot.

Pete Sepp ([email protected]) is vice president for policy and communications and Kristina Rasmussen ([email protected]) is director of government affairs for the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union.