Archive for Thursday, September 29, 2005

Complicated impact

The idea of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights may sound simple, but its impact can be both complicated and devastating to a state.

September 29, 2005

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The advocates of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) for Kansas are calling their current bus tour "The American Dream Express," but states that have tried measures similar to the one being proposed here have found the measure to be far from a "dream."

The plan is to pass a constitutional amendment that would limit Kansas spending growth to the inflation rate and refund taxes above that amount. Any tax increases would require the approval of state voters.

This is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory but, in practice, has many pitfalls. Colorado, which adopted a TABOR amendment in 1992, now is feeling some of that pain in the form of a severe budget pinch. In fact, this November, Colorado voters will consider a couple of corrective measures including allowing the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion to fund transportation, capital improvement projects and local police and fire pensions. Voters also will decide whether the government should be able to keep most of the extra tax revenue it collects.

Voters are attracted to TABOR because it seems like a good way to force lawmakers to curb spending. The problem is that it takes away the discretion of elected representatives to decide what spending is in the best interests of the state. Mandated spending for items like Medicaid must be funded, and when costs for those programs go up, it siphons off money for other important programs like highways and education.

For instance, a former Kansan who now is an analyst for the Colorado Fiscal Policy Center, told the Kansas Board of Regents earlier this year that funding for higher education in Colorado has dropped from 23 percent of the state general fund budget to 11 percent since TABOR went into effect. The failure of Colorado to sufficiently fund other basic responsibilities like highways and pension funds is reflected in the measure on November's ballot.

Is this what Kansans want for their state? Elected legislators are charged with responsibly allocating the money with which taxpayers entrust them. Voters expect lawmakers to be good stewards of their tax money, but sometimes it is more responsible to spend money or even raise taxes than it is to let a basic state need go unmet.

Implementing TABOR in Kansas would require a constitutional amendment that would have to gain two-thirds approval of both and Kansas House and Senate. If it passed that test, it would bypass the governor and go straight to state voters who could approve it with a simple majority vote.

The current conservative tilt of the state Legislature creates a real opportunity for TABOR advocates. And, if the measure passes the Legislature, its supporters would conduct a vigorous campaign - probably well-financed by out-of-state, no-tax groups - to try to sell TABOR to Kansas voters.

The message in support of TABOR may be simple, but the impact is complicated. Kansas legislators and voters should look carefully at the experiences of Colorado and other states and the potential impact on Kansas before jumping on board.

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