Since the founding of the United States, government officials have come up with many ways of rephrasing the problems of our bureaucracy. Our taxes are too high, we are overspending, and we now have a plethora of useless government programs in place. After we suspend our disbelief at the veil of ignorance placed over the heads of our representatives, we should realize that the very people who champion populist ideas are the cause of said problems. Americans should realize that when politicians say that terrorism and social security are key issues, which is only because they are afraid to face up to the damage they have already done.
The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, has become a major issue in my home state of Wisconsin. The reasons for this are baffling to me. Everyone I have ever heard advocate it believes that the politicians are going to save the day for us little people. Essentially, TABOR would assure that funding for projects do not exceed the past year’s funding with the exception for inflationary adjustment. If Wisconsin spent $1 billion on education in the 2003-2005 budget, the next budget would only go up with inflation. Any spending in the state budget that would exceed the funding of the past year would go to a referendum. While this does not include federal money, it does deal with those areas where the most power is vested: local government. Populism is not dead, my friends…at least not until the next election is over.
It is not out of the realm of our imaginations that the funding that we take for granted would be put to the scrutiny of the referendum. This process is good when it involves local school bards, building projects, and local elections. It is not good, however, when major issues that require some foresight and overview are required. For example, Governor Jim Doyle promised $280 million in point and non-point source clean up funding in his Executive Budget Summary for 2003-2005. If the governor were to use his line item veto power to bring that beyond inflationary control and do something good for the environment, the state would have to issue a referendum to the public. Though there are many who are outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists in the state of Wisconsin, there are also many involved in industries accused of point and non point pollution. Should this major issue be put on the backs of the people of Wisconsin when so many factors are at stake?
This is not an isolated incident. Other states have gone through the TABOR ringer. Colorado and California are the examples cited in Wisconsin and by experts throughout the country for the successes or failures of TABOR. Colorado passed TABOR into its state constitution in 1991 and has come across some major issues regarding Amendment 23, which states that educational funding must exceed the cap placed on all budget items. Colorado’s TABOR is different from the proposal in Wisconsin in that it prevents the withholding of revenues, not the spending of money. Either way, Colorado’s case of TABORitis is not going away. Colorado has a runaway budget, major constitutional issues to face, and a government that has tripped over itself to be overly populist.
These examples, however, do not even touch on the major issues of conservation in a changing economic environment. With politicians consistently feeding the public their talking points, largely about the war on terror and the war on practicality, we are merely to respond to the government’s calls. Do that many people respond to the call of “environmentalism?” How about “clean air?” Doesn’t ring a bell? That is because there are no calls for the environment in the mainstream. As frustrating as this is, TABOR involves the politics of ignorance. Environmentalism ranks relatively low on the “if you had to choose a policy to fund . . . ” polls but high in the hearts of the American public. Hearts don’t pay the bills, so when you see Bill 101 or Prop 450 on the ballot sheet, and there is anything remotely near the word “environment” on it, don’t be surprised to hear of its overwhelming defeat. TABOR is nothing but gesture politicking by individuals too rich to be concerned about the public’s clean air and water.
I propose something that should fulfill the promises of democracy but would still allow these politicos something to hang their hats on. Keep TABOR in the box; it is a meaningless gesture of conservatism. Set the TABOR loose on the electoral system. Put a spending limit on politicians, so that they cannot just send out pamphlets and make flashy television commercials. Instead of a referendum on spending in government, the elections will serve as the referendum on which direction our government should go. Announce a federal holiday for local, state, and national elections to be held in the same week. On top of this, make it a federal mandate to include everyone on the ballot in the debate. Oh, and how could I forget . . . establish a federal fund with money from our excessive defense spending to educate the public, in a balanced manner, on the issues facing the public. Cover every policy area, especially the environment, and make sure that every community in the nation is able to partake in this wonderful process. Then, and only then, will we change the discourse of our nation and save our environment.
TABOR is a dangerous proposition to be placing in state constitutions. Let’s use the genius of our political figures to some good; let them taste the power of populism.