Wisconsin, Colorado and TABOR: only the names have changed

This past fall, Colorado voters went to the polls and approved a measure that suspended $4 billion worth of tax refunds under their Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. That measure – Referendum C (and its borrowing mechanism, Referendum D) – was sold to voters as a way to jump start Colorado’s economy as it turned the corner out of the recession that affected nearly every state from 2001 to 2003.

Many conservatives have long advocated for a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – similar in nature and name to Colorado’s – for Wisconsin.

And it would seem that the opponents of a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in Wisconsin are also using Colorado as a model. Ironically enough, while we have decided to change the name of our tax-and-expenditure limit, they are choosing to dub it TABOR II, “Son of TABOR,” or even “Bride of TABOR” – alluding to James Whalen’s classic film, Bride of Frankenstein.

According to the Denver Post, 75 percent of the official supporters of Referendum C stood to benefit financially from its passage. Of the more notable endorsers were: AARP Colorado, Mental Health Association of Colorado, various school districts and city councils, Colorado Fire Chiefs Association, and the Colorado Senior Lobby. In the campaign to pass Referendum C, those supporters spent upwards of $7.5 million dollars, By comparison, Colorado’s U.S. Senator Wayne Allard spent only $5.3 million to win his seat in 2002.

Without shame, these groups spent millions of dollars telling Coloradoans that every social service was threatened without the tax increase.

And what do we see in Wisconsin as the opposition to the Taxpayer Protection Amendment forms? The same groups, the same organizations that stood to gain from the tax increase in Colorado, are the same groups voicing their opposition here in Wisconsin. AARP Wisconsin, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, Mental Health Association of Milwaukee County, and the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin are just a mirrored few.

Only the names have changed.

But the talking points are the same: we hear that they are protecting children from drastic social service cuts, they are protecting people from draconian funding cuts to fire and police protection, and that government provides critical services to those who are unable to provide for themselves.

However, the day after the vote in Colorado, the Colorado Springs Gazette was quick to note, “The passage of Referendum C could have at least one unfortunate consequence outside Colorado (which also explains why it garnered so much attention from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page). If this vote is viewed as a repudiation rather than just a fine-tuning of TABOR, it could be a serious setback for those promoting TABOR-like budget control measures in other states, including Kansas, Ohio, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and Arizona. […] We would hate to see that happen because even an imperfect TABOR is better than no TABOR at all, and because those states would likely fine-tune the concept to take into account Colorado’s not flawless, but still overwhelmingly positive experience with this law.”

As it turns out, Colorado’s economy continues to grow, generating an additional $158 million in revenue to the state. Prior to the debate over Referendum C, the tax refunds were expected to be a little over $3 billion, but by year’s end, the economy was on course to produce a tax surplus approaching $4 billion. And all of this separate of any tax increase.

Contrary to what the usual opposition says, Wisconsin’s taxpayers would do well under this system, just as they’ve done in Colorado.