Referendum C Could Hurt National Effort To Limit States’ Spending

DENVER — For conservatives, it was painful to watch: A Republican governor teams up with Democrats on a plan to ease the nation’s strictest cap on government spending and Colorado voters actually go for it by surrendering $3.7 billion in taxpayer refunds.

While many believe Tuesday’s vote could hurt efforts to cap government spending in other states, some contend the campaign here offers important lessons to help supporters sell their proposals.

“The only losers here are the taxpayers of Colorado,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington. “They got screwed; everybody else learned how to do better at this.”

By a 52 percent majority, Colorado voters agreed to allow government to keep billions of dollars over the next five years that otherwise would have to be sent back to taxpayers under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a 1992 constitutional amendment.

During those five years, the measure also will suspend a provision that bases each year’s spending on the previous year’s level, plus inflation and population growth. Critics had complained TABOR has not allowed the state to rebound from a recession because that base level is too low and can’t increase.

This Tuesday, Californians will vote on Proposition 76, which would cap state spending and give the governor the authority to make midyear budget cuts.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been campaigning for the proposal, saying without greater financial discipline, the state might be unable to meet mounting demands for necessities including electric power, health care and highways.

It’s an argument that Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for opposition group Alliance for a Better California, disputes. He said the example of Colorado voters easing limits has provided a useful weapon in his campaign arsenal.

“We’ve been driving home the point that even in a red state, this kind of gimmick doesn’t work,” Maviglio said. “It’s one more solid argument in our favor and we’ve been touting it everywhere we can.”

In Maine, supporters of a TABOR-like ballot issue proposed for 2006 have submitted voter signatures to elections officials. Ohio’s secretary of state has qualified a spending-limit measure for the 2006 ballot. Norquist said he has been working with supporters in Nevada, Arizona and Oregon to put measures on next year’s ballots.

No matter what happened in Colorado, people across the country are still interested in limiting government’s ability to raise and spend money, said FreedomWorks, another Washington-based pro-TABOR group.

“I think it muddies the water from a message point of view,” said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe. “Tax and budget battles never end and the fact of the matter is Colorado worked and is still working dramatically well. … I can’t think of a single state where it wouldn’t be a step in the right direction.”

Norquist and other fiscal conservatives leveled blistering criticism at term-limited Gov. Bill Owens, a conservative Republican whom many in the GOP around the country once considered a potential presidential candidate. Norquist called him a “weenie” who killed his political career by supporting the measure, but Owens has maintained he did what he believed was right for Colorado.

Owens said he has warned other states considering tax limits to fix mistakes in TABOR that forced Colorado to cut about $1 billion from the state budget the past three years, then kept the state from keeping more money when the economy rebounded.

“It tells other states if you do it the right way, it works,” Owens said. He dismissed criticism from Norquist and others from outside Colorado.

“A lot of the debate was between people whose names we couldn’t pronounce, from states we didn’t know, and I don’t think that worked very well,” Owens said.