Educators Buck Giving the Public Its Say on Taxes

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It is an awkward position to take in the anti-government climate of this year's elections, but educators in several states are fighting proposals that would give voters the sole authority to raise taxes.

The increasingly popular notion that the public, not its elected representatives, should approve tax increases will be on the ballot next week in Missouri, Montana, and Oregon. School groups in those states fear such measures would dry up education funding, and they are actively campaigning against them.

But proponents hail these proposals as a new form of direct democracy and hope the public's sour attitude toward government carries the day.

"It's just that elected officials no longer have any respect for the public," said Bill Sizemore, the president of Oregon Taxpayers United, which helped collect 136,000 petition signatures to put a voter-approval measure on the ballot. "It's like we're nothing but an A.T.M. machine to them."

Ballot initiatives historically have been a vehicle for taxpayer protests. In 1990, for example, 10 states held votes on whether to limit or roll back taxes. (See Education Week, Oct. 31, 1990.)

And some anti-tax measures on this year's ballot sound familiar. In South Dakota, for example, the ballot includes a property-tax limit similar to 1978's trendsetting Proposition 13 in California. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

New Twist

But the calls for mandatory referendums on tax increases are a new twist to the traditional tax revolt. In 1992, Colorado voters approved a measure requiring ballot-box approval of all state and local tax hikes. Since then, citizen groups in at least seven states have mounted efforts to put similar measures on the 1994 ballot.

Where they succeeded, proponents are telling voters that such measures are needed to enforce the will of the people over elected officials who have circumvented the political process.

"I realize that the [National Education Association] and the other education groups are trying to defeat this," said U.S. Rep. Mel Hancock, a Republican who was the author of the Missouri initiative. "But they're taking away the constitutional rights of their constituents."

Before his election to Congress in 1988, Mr. Hancock drafted and pushed to passage a state initiative that limited state revenues to Missouri's growth in personal income.

Legislators have made end-runs around this revenue cap and raised taxes $5 billion since 1982, he said.

Working for the tax-limit measures in both Missouri and Montana are state chapters of United We Stand, the organization whose members and founder, the 1992 independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot, hold similar suspicions about government.

In Oregon, the taxpayers' group turned to the voter-approval measure after the legislature proved it could put an escape hatch into any spending limits, Mr. Sizemore said.

"The government just drives cement trucks through those loopholes," he added. "They will gut at least 50 percent of any safeguard you get in."

To fight these measures, school groups have joined some unusual alliances. In Oregon, for example, they are working with banks, utility companies, senior citizens' groups, and local chambers of commerce to warn the public that the measure will require votes on even the simplest government fee.

"It goes into such detail," said Ruth Ann Dodson, the manager of community and government relations for the Portland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "I can't imagine having to set up a separate election to set fees for fishing licenses."

In Montana, educators have aligned themselves with the state's mining and stockgrowers' associations and even the state taxpayers' group.

"Normally, we would fight each other to the death about what is a good way to go about [tax reform]," said Phil Campbell, the director of government relations for the Montana Education Association. "But we're all agreed that this is not a good way."

Damage to Schools

In taking their fight to the public, education groups have marshaled evidence that passage of the anti-tax measures would hurt schools.

In Missouri, the voter-approval amendment--Constitutional Amendment 7--is coupled with limits on government spending that the state has estimated will lead to between $1 billion and $5 billion in cuts.

Missouri's constitution requires the state to dedicate 25 percent of its revenues for schools. However, education funding could still be cut enough to lay off up to 10,000 of the state's 55,000 teachers, according to Robert J. Quinn, the legislative director of the Missouri National Education Association.

"Amendment 7 will close school doors and open prison doors" reads the cover of a brochure used by its opponents.

But for the most part, opponents in all three states have made a tactical decision not to argue against the right of voters to decide directly their own tax levels.

In Oregon, for example, polls conducted by the campaign against the measure showed it would be foolish to address the issue head-on, said Mark Nelson, the director of the campaign.

Instead, opponents have called it a flawed measure, and the campaign has adopted the slogan "It goes too far."

A Trend Toward Populism

As the popularity of voter-approval measures grows, however, this debate may have to be joined. Only two states--Washington and Colorado--currently have voter-approval laws on the books, according to Dean Stansel, a fiscal-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank with a libertarian orientation.

But groups in at least five states--Arkansas, California, Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio--are planning petition drives to put similar measures on state ballots in 1995.

Conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform have been making the case for voter-approval of tax increases for some time.

"I'm not gung ho about using direct democracy to decide every issue," said Mr. Stansel. "But I think in the case of taxes, it could be really effective."

Michael Pons, a policy analyst with the N.E.A., said he worries that ballot initiatives for voter-approval measures are misleadingly simple, asking only whether the public should approve tax increases.

Most polls show that people will pay more in taxes if the money goes to schools, he said, but ballot measures such as this year's crop of voter-approval proposals divorce taxes from their function.

"Our representative government is based on the idea that we elect people to public office so they will have time to look at all the issues at hand," Mr. Pons said.

A Bumper Crop of Initiatives

Voters will turn a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a total of some 200 ballot initiatives next week. That includes 78 initiatives put on the ballot through citizen petition drives, more than in any election since 1932, according to the Public Affairs Research Institute of New Jersey.

Oregon voters have the most choices to make. Among the state's 13 ballot initiatives is a measure that would guarantee state funding to schools at 1993-1995 levels. A tax lid passed in 1990 has already led to cuts in state aid to schools, and school groups hope this "Kids First" measure would protect education from future cuts.

The initiative has split the education community, as colleges and universities have allied with other government-funded organizations to argue that it would unfairly allocate scarce funds.

Vol. 14, Issue 09

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