Call TABOR What It Is: A Failed Social Experiment

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

It’s time to call TABOR, the so-called Tax Payer’s Bill of Rights, what it is:

A conservative social experiment.

The TABOR Experiment asked whether a majority of people would approve of the taxes necessary for essential government services like schools, roads, health services, and other basic government functions.

After 27 years, the answer is “They won’t”.

TABOR supporters believe voters, not politicians, are in the best position to decide how their money will be spent. That idea sounds good. It appeals to a certain Libertarian spirit that is common among Western states. For Conservatives, it is orthodoxy.

But, as legendary radio host and conservative folk hero Paul Harvey liked to say, “Self-government won’t work without self-discipline.”

Republicans believe TABOR imposes discipline on overspending politicians. And it does, if your definition of discipline includes tying someone’s hands.

Unfortunately, the majority of Colorado voters have repeatedly refused to impose any discipline on themselves. Ballot measures proposing tax increases for roads, schools, and even emergency services are routinely met with yard signs proclaiming, “Taxation is theft”. The notable exceptions to this rule are measures that impose taxes on other people. Voters in Colorado are willing to raise taxes on lodging, marijuana, or other things they don’t believe will affect them.

Democrats like to blame Republicans when proposed tax increases fail. But in 2018, over 1.3 million voters, over 53% of the electorate, rejected an amendment that would have raised taxes for schools. There are 990,434 active Republican voters in Colorado. Even if every Republican in this state voted “No” it wouldn’t have been enough for the measure to fail. A proposal to raise taxes for road repair was also rejected, with 1.45 million Coloradans voting “No.” Those extra votes came from some combination of unaffiliated voters (almost 1.3 million total), third party groups, or from defections among the 1,038,442 registered Colorado Democrats.

Experiments are useless unless the information is applied. 

It is unlikely that convicted tax evader Douglas Bruce saw TABOR as a sociology research project. Given the Republican Party’s current rejection of all things empirical, it is even less likely that Conservatives would see TABOR that way. Nevertheless, 27 years of TABOR has a lot to say about how people behave and what self-government means.

What have we learned?

Voters tend to reject tax increases that affect them.

Despite being unwilling to impose tax increases on themselves, voters are willing to impose taxes on others.

If voters believed that taxation is theft, as the yard signs claim, they would oppose all taxes because they oppose theft. That is assuming they oppose theft on principle. That does not seem to be the case. Voters may see taxes as a necessary evil, but it is an evil they are willing to impose on strangers.

Voters tend to read only the first line of ballot issues.

Perhaps the most insidious (or brilliant, depending on your perspective) TABOR requirement is that ballot measures regarding tax increases must begin with the words, “STATE TAXES SHALL BE INCREASED BY (X Number of dollars, typically in the millions). This sentence, in ALL CAPS, is the first statement voters see regarding the amendment. Proposition 110, the transportation measure, began with “STATE TAXES SHALL BE INCREASED $766,700,000 ANNUALLY FOR A TWENTY-YEAR PERIOD…”. It is impossible to know how many voters check “NO” after reading only that sentence. Any intro to marketing student knows that effective marketing lists benefits first, features second, and then the cost. Suppose that instead of beginning with an estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, the ballot question began with “SHALL THE PEOPLE OF COLORADO REPAIR AND IMPROVE ROADS AND OTHER CRITICAL TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE?” There is no way to tell whether changing the question would affect the ultimate outcome, but marketing theory strongly suggests that it would.

It’s time for the experiment to end.

It is unconscionable that the state with the number one economy in the nation would have some of the worst roads (32nd place) and schools (40th lowest) in the nation. When comparing the affordability of college, Colorado ranks 31st, an embarrassing rank for a state that boasts a booming high tech sector. We rank 5th in overall healthcare, an impressive score, but there are rural communities in which there are no doctors and no medical facilities.

TABOR obscures any objective, long-term perspective for our state. One advantage of our representative form of government is that leaders are able to see beyond their immediate self-interest and pass legislation that is good for the the future of the entire state and not for just themselves. Admittedly, this is not always the case. Past history and current events are full of examples of politicians who put themselves, their corporate donors, or their party ahead of their constituents. Voters have a responsibility to keep myopic people out of office and to replace them with true leaders who have a vision for our future. We need leaders who can accomplish what people without leadership cannot. Elected officials who fail to live up to this expectation should be voted out of office. But TABOR has shown that the system fails when voters are required to micromanage every economic decision.

This lack of leadership diminishes our sense of community and shared goals, focusing instead on selfish economic gains for the individual. Meanwhile, our roads and bridges crumble. Our schools go to four-day weeks, not for educational benefits but because that’s all they can afford. And the gap between what people need from their government and what that government can actually provide continues to expand.

We tried TABOR. It did not work. It’s time to try something new.

Bob Seay for Colorado

About Bob Seay for Colorado

I am a high school music teacher in Lamar, Colorado. I am also the Secretary of the Colorado Democratic Party and a former congressional candidate. The opinions expressed here are my own.