Beware: TABOR Is Coming

After devastating government services in Colorado, the "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" threatens to spread.


This article is from the July/August 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

issue 260 cover

This article is from the July/August 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

Subscribe Now

at a discount.

In 1992, after tireless nagging by Grover Norquist and his minions at Americans for Tax Reform, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to strictly limit the government's ability to raise revenue. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, has forced Colorado to spend the last 13 years writing mandatory rebate checks to taxpayers, while vital education and human-service programs have been nearly choked to death. According to David Bradley and Nicholas Johnson at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), for example, "between 1991 and 2003--a period in which the percentage of children who are uninsured declined nationally--the proportion of low-income children who lack health insurance in Colorado rose from 15% to 27%. Colorado now ranks 48th in its level of taxpayer support of colleges and universities, down from 35th in 1992."

Despite the pain TABOR has caused in Colorado, some 23 states were facing similar initiatives at the close of 2004. But Norquist's drive shows signs of floundering. "For businesses to be successful you need roads and you need higher education, both of which have gotten worse under TABOR and will continue to get worse," Tom Clark of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce told the Washington Monthly. "I'm a Republican," Clark said, "but I made the decision not to give any money to the state party." Likewise, Colorado Governor Bill Owens is having trouble garnering support from his own party's legislators, most of whom know their constituents no longer believe TABOR is a good thing. The anti-TABOR movement, meanwhile, continues to gain momentum, as the story of Colorado's misery begins to spread nationally.

Funded by the Right

TABOR is a mutation of the Tax and Expenditure Limits (TELs) instituted in 28 states around the country over the past quarter-century, beginning with Proposition 4 in California in 1979. TABOR is like a conventional TEL on steroids: it has been pumped up with stricter spending limits and tighter restrictions on legislative action. Whereas TELs traditionally tied state government spending to faster-growing personal income, TABOR allows government budgets to grow only as fast as the population plus the inflation rate. Furthermore, TABOR applies the population-plus-inflation adjustment to the prior year's actual expenditures, not to allowable or budgeted expenditures. So, as the CBPP notes, "when state budgets grow slowly or fall, as in the recent fiscal crisis, actual spending or revenues are likely to be lower than the level permitted by the formula. If this lower level becomes the new base … then the level of public services is permanently ratcheted down." Colorado's TABOR, the only one in effect so far, was also designed to be hard to reverse: only a ballot measure approved by the state's voters can do so.

Most of the financial backing for TABOR initiatives has come from antitax fanatics like Grover Norquist, White House insider and intellectual author of the Bush tax cuts, or brothers Charles and David Koch of oil pipeline conglomerate Koch Industries, heirs to their father's company and fortune. As co-owners of their $40 billion corporation, the Kochs have used their staggering resources to start an ultraconservative think tank designed to pump out ideological broadsides disguised as policy studies. The Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) touts TABOR and other pieces of conservative legislation as overwhelming success stories, usually with validating data from like-minded (and like-funded) organizations. "It's no accident that TABOR's major champions … share many of the same free-market philosophies and goals. They also share many of the same funders--large corporate interests and right-wing private foundations--and in some cases, they share board members as well," concludes a 2005 report by the Bureau of National Affairs, a nonpartisan business news publisher.

Armed with these dubious studies and lots of corporate AFPF dollars, local groups stuff mailboxes full of flyers and whisper in the ears of state politicians. AFPF's director of North Carolina operations, David Neeley, "expects to spend anywhere between $200,000 and $500,000 this year alone on radio and television advertisements and direct-mail promotions."

Colorado Blues

TABOR's advocates continue to spend heavily, but it is hard to imagine there are enough dollars to mask the devastation TABOR has wrought in Colorado. The CBPP has been following TABOR from the beginning. "Not surprisingly," according to Johnson and Bradley, "pro-TABOR activists fail to note the many measures by which Colorado is falling behind other states in education, health, public safety and other areas in part as a result of TABOR-driven reductions in public services."

  • From 1991 to 2000 school funding per pupil in Colorado fell significantly, dropping from $299 below the national average in 1991 to $697 below the national average in 2000.
  • Colorado's ranking on adequate prenatal care has dropped sharply, from 23rd in 1990 to 48th in 2004.
  • Colorado's on-time vaccination rate has fallen from above the national average in 1995 to the nation's lowest level.

Additionally, budget cuts since 2001, exacerbated by TABOR, have reduced funding for alcohol and drug abuse treatment by 15%, eliminated funds for full-day kindergarten in low-performing schools and for pre-school for 2,000 at-risk children, and eliminated all state support to local and regional health agencies.

Fighting Back

The looming specter of TABOR has scared up strong resistance in Ohio, where many anti-TABOR activists feel it has the greatest chance of spreading next. Maura Policelli of the CBPP has been working closely with organizations in Ohio to block TABOR. She believes Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's bid for governor in 2006 is largely dependent on the outcome of the TABOR push he is championing. TABOR has already been killed by the Ohio legislature, but Blackwell and his Citizens for Tax Reform are trying to coax enough signatures from frustrated, jobless Ohioans to put a TABOR question on the upcoming ballot. If the effort has any chance at all, Policelli feels that it is because the pointed language used by advocates preys on those who have become disenchanted with government. "TABOR is sold as a simple solution to a state's economic troubles. On the surface it sounds like an attractive idea, especially to Americans who carry around an anti-government, anti-tax attitude. But the fact is that TABOR has many unintended consequences and creates more problems for a state than it solves," she says.

The results of a TABOR measure in Ohio would hardly be attractive. A recent CBPP study projected a hypothetical TABOR back over 10 years, showing that $19 billion would have been cut from state spending over that time. The study suggests how a shortfall of this magnitude might have been made up. If Ohio had:

  • Cut 12 days off the school year,
  • Eliminated Healthy Start, the children's health insurance program,
  • Ended prescription drug coverage under Medicaid for 700,000 adults,
  • Laid off 57% of the security workforce in state prisons,
  • Increased in-state tuition at state colleges and universities by $1,200, and
  • Eliminated all residential and support services for the developmentally disabled,

it still would not have accounted for the entire TABOR shortfall!

Naturally, pro-TABOR forces are seeking to obscure these devastating results. Nonetheless, Policelli is confident that by working closely with groups like the AARP, labor unions, higher education leaders, Republican and Democratic elected officials, and the League of Women Voters, she can help defeat TABOR in Ohio. Concerned Ohio citizens have formed the anti-TABOR Coalition for Ohio's Future, a growing, bipartisan organization of more than 100 groups and associations that represent over two million Ohioans.

Pro- and anti-TABOR groups are waging battles in other states too. In the face of efforts to purify the Republican party using TABOR in her state, Carolyn Castore of Wisconsin Citizen Action is building a coalition of organizations that have a stake in the budget, like teacher's unions and environmental, student, and senior groups. She suggests that rather than look to TABOR, those who want relief for the state's struggling economy should look next door. Unlike Wisconsin, with the second-most pro-corporate tax structure in the country, Minnesota taxes corporations relatively heavily. Tellingly, she points out, Minnesota's economy has stayed relatively robust through the recent recession. In Missouri, activists like Amy Blovin of the Missouri Budget Project are stepping up their efforts to fight TABOR because, as she says, "government has a role, a valuable role in society."

The TABOR movement now appears to be losing ground. Of the 23 states with TABOR bills on the table during this legislative session, only 7 are still considering it. (Two of those states, plus two of the states where the bill has died, also have active campaigns to put TABOR on the ballot as a citizen initiative.) The anti-government, anti-tax crowd still has a lot of friends in Washington. But with TABOR losing respect from once-staunch supporters and facing growing opposition around the country, at the state level the tide may be turning.

Michael Rebne is a Dollars & Sense intern and an ESL instructor.