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TABOR: A Proven Failure

It's only been tried in one state. Over time, Colorado voters thought better of it and put the law "on hold" after it forced draconian cuts in basic public safety, education, and health services.

But supporters of the so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" (TABOR) concept are relentlessly trying to impose it on other states, anyway.

Best known as TABOR, the tax-cutting plan is also known as "tax and expenditure limits," or TELS, and has been dubbed SOS for Stop OverSpending in Montana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Oklahoma (where the state supreme court has ruled that the proposal failed to qualify for the ballot).

Whatever it's called, the idea is the same: limit and eventually shrink or "starve" public budgets to pave the way for moving much or most of what are now government services to the private sector.

The specific implications for public education are clear. Shrinking already inadequate funding to a mere trickle is just another way to force public schools to fail, and -- voilà -- the door is wide open for privatizing them as the only alternative. The best known TABOR boosters are also avowed and impassioned private school voucher fans.

TABOR and similar proposals are generally designed as state constitutional amendments in order to make them difficult to change or eliminate, which makes the stakes high, indeed. That was the case in Colorado, where voters approved TABOR as a constitutional amendment in 1992 that has served as the model for subsequent proposals in many other states. What TABOR does is limit increases in state and local government expenditures to a percentage rate based on the rate of growth of state population plus an inflation factor.

TABOR Was Destroying Public Services in Colorado

By 2005, vital public services in Colorado, which has the seventh highest per capita income in the country, were in shambles. It was so bad that voters, led by a Republican governor who had at one time been a champion of TABOR, gave themselves a temporary reprieve and time to shore up services by approving a referendum that partially suspends the measure's major provisions for five years. Here's why:

  • Colorado ranks 47th in K-12 education funding as a share of state income.
  • Colorado ranks 50th in the nation in on-time immunization rates.
  • Colorado has eliminated its affordable housing loans and grants program.
  • Probation officers in Colorado carry an average of 238 cases -- nearly double the national average of 130. Due to funding decreases, nearly 50 probation officers were laid off between 2002 and 2004.
  • The high school graduation rate in Colorado fell from 76 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2004.
  • The percentage of low-income Colorado children who lack health insurance rose from 15 percent in 1991-92 to 27 percent in 2002-03. (During the same period, the national proportion that lack insurance declined from 21 percent to 19 percent.) Among Colorado low-income adults, the rate rose from 22 percent to 32 percent while the national rate rose from 26 percent to 27 percent.

TABOR Initiatives Set for Statewide Votes

All of this is fine with the people who are pushing TABOR. Elimination of public social services is their goal, in fact. Undeterred, this relatively small national network of libertarian organizations, foundations, and wealthy libertarian benefactors is working hard and spending millions of dollars to persuade voters in other states to buy their ruinous plan -- all in the guise of tax relief and stopping "unrestrained government growth."

It now appears all but certain that TABOR or TABOR-like proposals will be on statewide ballots in Montana, Michigan, Maine, Nebraska, and Nevada in November. Court decisions threw out TABOR signature petitions in Missouri and Oregon, but appeals of those rulings are still possible.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that pro-TABOR petitions did not have enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Proponents were quoted as saying they will ask the state's high court for a rehearing, but it's highly unlikely that there will be a TABOR-type proposal on the ballot in Oklahoma this year.

What is certain is that the network of well-funded TABOR enthusiasts will not be going away any time soon. They will reappear in states where they failed this year and will move their campaign into states not on this year's list.