Anti-Government Tide Buoys Tax-Limitation Plans

By Lonnie Harp — October 31, 1990 6 min read

Five times in the past 18 years, and in each of the past two statewide elections, Colorado educators have helped beat back ballot initiatives aimed at limiting local property taxes and state spending.

This fall, Colorado’s educators, business leaders, and Gov. Roy Romer are once again fighting a tax revolt. But they and their counterparts in a number of other states are finding this year’s odds of winning to be considerably longer.

“Before, we could wipe this out as kind of a crazy idea,” said Gerry Gifford, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “This time, it’s going to be close, and we’re just hopeful that we finish on the up side.”

Colorado’s Amendment 1 would establish a constitutional ceiling for local property taxes at $0.69 per $100 of assessed valuation. The plan also would limit state spending increases and require voter approval before the enactment of spending and tax increases passed by the legislature.

Like its predecessors, the plan would trim local schools’ chief revenue source and handcuff state lawmakers from making up much of the difference.

But far more than its ill-fated ancestors, Amendment 1 is being buoyed by a rising tide of anti-government sentiment--the same force that is providing momentum for similar measures that await voters in several other states on Nov. 6.

In addition to Colorado, ballot initiatives limiting taxes or spending by legislatures--in some cases, also covering school boards and other local-government entities--will be decided in California, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, and South Dakota. In addition, a property-tax limitation referred by the legislature will appear on the Washington State ballot.

Meanwhile, ballot measures asking voters to roll back taxes already passed by lawmakers will be decided in Massachusetts and Nebraska. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

A pair of Oklahoma initiatives calling for spending limits and a tax roll-back would have been on the ballot next week if opponents had not managed to delay them in the courts, and probably will be placed before the voters next spring. And the Arizona secretary of state ruled last week that a roll-back measure there lacked enough valid signatures.

Citizen Uprising Seen

Observers said last week that the unusually strong presence of spending-limit and tax-revolt referendums can be traced to voters’ growing discontent with policymakers.

“We’re seeing a citizen uprising that shows voters are just not happy with the way government is being run in general,” said John P. Keast, assistant to the director of the Free Congress Foundation, who monitors state ballot proposals.

Mr. Keast added that those sentiments are also reflected in ballot questions in Colorado and California that would limit the terms of elected officials, and a similar measure that passed this summer in Oklahoma.

“I think the big picture is that tax-revolt activity this year is more worrisome than it has been in the past 10 years,” said Steve Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y.

This year’s elections, he said, offer the best opportunity for passage of “significant” spending restraints since 1978, when California voters approved the landmark Proposition 13’s tax limitations.

“In part, that’s because states have been raising taxes because of the pressure on their budgets, and because many people are not doing well economically,” Mr. Gold argued. “And the circus in Washington is making people more skeptical about public budgets at all levels.”

Ballot initiatives aimed at curbing government spending typically gain wide early support that dwindles by Election Day, Mr. Gold said last week. But initiatives this year in Colorado, Massachusetts, and South Dakota have shown remarkable stamina, he said.

“Everything could still turn out all right, but what happens in the next two weeks is very significant,” Mr. Gold added.

A Boston Globe poll released last week indicated that Massachusetts voters are turning strongly against the tax-limitation plan.

Worst-Case Scenarios

Even a few successful initiatives this year could produce a ripple effect in 1992 elections, Mr. Gold warned. “Each of those measures has real teeth,” he said. “It will be like pouring gasoline on the flames of the tax revolt and would tend to inhibit states from increasing taxes next year.”

In many of the states contemplating spending limits or tax roll-backs, educators are on the defensive, and, their opponents say, painting a worst-case scenario in order to mobilize their forces.

In Colorado, opponents of Amendment 1 have aired a television commercial showing textbooks slowly disappearing from in front of children as the narrator describes the consequences of spending cuts.

“They are desperate because we’re ahead,” said Douglas Bruce, the author of Amendment 1 and chairman of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Committee. “The education lobby is the number-one opponent of tax limits because they get the lion’s share of government spending. If it weren’t for the school people, we’d have a walk.”

But Mr. Gifford of case said educators are not overstating the amendment’s potential impact.

The proposal would cause a decrease of between $65 million and $230 million in schools’ property-tax revenue between 1991 and 1993, according to an analysis by the state’s legislative counsel. The spending limit also could force lawmakers to repeal a bill passed this year to fully fund a new school-finance formula by 1992.

“It’s almost a hopeless picture of what would have to be cut,” Mr. Gifford said. “We’ve got a real massive issue facing us. The word around the state is get your resume up to date.”

Other School Issues

In Oregon, a referendum allowing for open enrollment among public schools and tax credits for parents who send their children to private or Continued on Following Page

Anti-Government Fervor Buoying

States’ Tax-Limitation Initiatives

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home schools has garnered wide national attention. Many education groups, however, have turned their energy to Measure 5, which would limit property taxes.

Vice President Dan Quayle and former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett have come to the state to stump for the school-choice referendum, known as Measure 11. U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House minority whip, has also aided in fund-raising efforts. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1990.)

But Oregon observers said education groups have begun to concentrate on the property-tax question as they perceive the choice referendum has lost its steam.

The school-choice plan is one of a handful of ballot questions focusing solely on education.

In Kansas, voters will decide a constitutional amendment shifting school-governance power from the state board of education to the legislature. A New Mexico ballot question involves changes in the management of the state’s permanent school fund.

In Arizona, voters will face a ballot initiative calling for more money for the schools.

The Classroom Improvement Program, known as Proposition 103, would require lawmakers to increase elementary and secondary education funding by $100 per pupil in each of the next 10 years. Some estimates have placed the program’s total cost as high as $6 billion.

While a statewide coalition of parents and educators has helped build widespread support, the question is facing well-financed opposition led by utility companies, miners, and agricultural interests.

In addition to earmarking the per-pupil increase for classroom improvements, the plan would require districts to issue an annual “report card” outlining the use and results of the extra funding.

Among other education-funding questions on the ballot, California voters will consider an $800-million bond issue for construction and building improvements. Other education bond issues will be decided in Maine, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.

In New Hampshire, voters will be asked whether all of that state’s lottery proceeds should be earmarked for education. Voters will decide whether to establish new lotteries in Arkansas and Nebraska, where a portion of the profits would offer local property-tax relief.