Wisconsin isn’t falling for TABOR

For Republicans eyeing the governor’s mansion in Wisconsin and figuring that the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights just might be their ticket there, it must have been exasperating to have Rep. Brad Young come to town last week.

Young, a Republican from Lamar who has chaired both the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Budget Committee, went to Madison at the invitation of Wisconsin Counties Inc.

And trashed TABOR.

He told them that under TABOR, basic state services – even at their most bare-bones – are “unsustainable” and that representative democracy inevitably will devolve into direct democracy.

“Human nature being what it is,” blinded by self-interest and hobbled by a shallow understanding of state problems, he said, TABOR is recipe for chaos.

Wisconsin is one of five states targeted for TABOR-style constitutional amendments this year by a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group called Citizens for a Sound Economy. And at first glance, it would seem a prime candidate.

The state has the sixth-highest state-and-local tax burden in the country, and a Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature.

But it’s no pushover, Young said.

In a forum broadcast statewide, the Colorado lawmaker described how TABOR relentlessly shrinks government in relation to the economy.

The biggest immediate effect in Wisconsin would be on education. A point of pride in the state since long before I was a student there in the 1950s, this proved troubling.

The Wisconsin Council on Children & Families hauled out a raft of statistics in its opposition to the amendment. It noted that Wisconsin had the highest ACT scores in the country in 2003 and the seventh-best high-school graduation rate and that 28 percent of low-income students there go on to college. Per-pupil expenditures in 2001 were $8,158, 12th-highest in the nation.

Meanwhile, Colorado ranked 21st in ACT scores and 30th in high-school graduation rates, and only 17 percent of its low-income students go to college, it said. Here, per-pupil expenditures were $6,515 in 2001, 34th in the nation.

A constitutional amendment requires approval in two sessions of the state Legislature before it can go to a vote of the people in Wisconsin. So on Wednesday, while Young was making his presentation, the Republican caucus was meeting to determine if it had enough votes to endorse TABOR. Support from House Republicans was secure, and if the Senate agreed, the Legislature would call itself back into session to vote on the matter.

“They couldn’t get the votes,” Young said.

Unlike Colorado in 1992, where “only a small number of people were aware of what we were heading into with TABOR,” Young said that in Wisconsin the debate was intense.

And one of the most influential figures was the highly respected former governor, Lee Dreyfus.

Dreyfus, a Republican, wrote a stinging rebuke of the proposed amendment for local newspapers, telling the legislators in his party to “get off the bandwagon and do what we elected you to do.”

He called TABOR “a terrible idea” and suggested that if the state budget needed cutting, instead of destroying 156 years of successful representative government, the voters should elect representatives capable of cutting it.

It’s the kind of unflinching honesty Coloradans crave.

Instead we get excuses.

Young admitted his own frustration at home. “I was optimistic something was going to happen” to change TABOR and Amendment 23 at the end of the session. “But it’s really stalled.”

So as Colorado prepares to drain an estimated $250 million more from state services next year, Young, who’s term-limited, will be watching from the sidelines, worrying about the future and rooting for the sensible folks in my old home.

On, Wisconsin.

Diane Carman’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at 303-820-1489 or dcarman@denverpost.com .