Government Spending Caps Suffer Defeats

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Government spending caps suffered back-to-back defeats in Colorado and California over the past two weeks. But whether that means that the American public is turning against the idea of imposing fiscal discipline on politicians remains to be seen.

In California last Tuesday, voters rejected by nearly 2-to-1 a measure put forward by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have imposed a spending cap and given the governor authority to make midyear budget cuts.

On Nov. 1, Colorado voters suspended the state Taxpayer's Bill of Rights — the strictest government spending limit in the nation — and agreed to relinquish more than $3 billion in tax refunds over five years to take advantage of the rebounding economy and restore programs that were cut during the downturn of the past few years.

Conservatives brushed off any suggestion that the votes showed the beginning of a trend against spending restraints.

The vote against TABOR in Colorado "will make it easier for people who oppose TABOR in other states to make the wrong claim that voters in Colorado weren't supportive of TABOR in that state," said Ed Frank of Americans for Prosperity, which helped create model legislation based on TABOR. "But I think that there is a lot of momentum for TABOR around the country."

Ohio voters will decide on a spending limit next year, and Maine activists have submitted voter signatures for a referendum on a similar proposal. Frank said drives are also under way to place such measures on the ballots in Oklahoma, Oregon and Nevada.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that in deciding state issues, voters generally do not look beyond their borders and probably will not be influenced by what happened in Colorado and California.

At the same, he said, the two elections demonstrate that "the anti-tax groups will have to raise and spend a great deal of money just to sell people on this idea that they believe is very popular."

TABOR, a constitutional amendment Colorado voters approved in 1992, bases each year's spending on the previous year's level, plus inflation and population growth. It was suspended with a 52 percent majority of the vote.

"Things were squeezed down pretty hard during the economic downturn and most states have not restored much of anything that was cut," said Iris Lav, deputy director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on policies affecting the poor. With the economy rebounding, people were saying, "Let's not get into these rigid formulas," Lav said.