Commentary

Hey, Big Spender: What Part of NO Don’t You Understand?

Oregon voters have resoundingly defeated their legislature’s tax increase plan — for the second time in a year, and by an even bigger margin.

On Jan. 28, 2003, Oregonians voted to reject the legislature’s proposed $313 million tax hike. All the Oregon politicians and the major media warned voters that if they turned down the tax, the legislature would be forced to cut spending. As The Washington Post summed up the stakes: “9,000 elderly people slated to lose spaces in long-term care facilities; thousands more slated to lose prescription drug coverage; mentally ill and disabled Oregonians losing medical and housing aid. And every day brought news of another school district preparing to cut school days, cancel spring sports or pare enrichment activities.”

Yet after hearing all the warnings of old people being thrown out in the cold Oregon winter, 54 percent of the voters told the legislature to go ahead and cut.

Surprised that the people had called their bluff, the politicians raised taxes anyway — by $1.1 billion, far more than the amount the voters had rejected. After the August tax hike, opponents set out to put an initiative on the ballot to reject the tax. They needed 50,420 voter signatures in just three months. They turned in more than 147,000.

The measure was placed on the Feb. 3 ballot. State employee unions poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pro-tax effort, far outspending the tax opponents. But once again the people voted to reject the legislature’s tax increase, this time by 59 percent to 41 percent.

Even before the two tax-increase votes, the mood of the voters should have been clear to all. In November 2002, Oregonians rejected by 79 percent a proposal to create a large-scale state health-care plan, with the potential for major tax increases. Country singer Lorrie Morgan might ask Oregon politicians, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Oregon voters aren’t unique. When they’re given a chance to have a say, Americans don’t like big government. On Election Day 2002, voters in two parts of Virginia turned down a proposed tax increase for new roads. That same day 45 percent of the voters in the most liberal state in the Union, Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts, voted to abolish the state income tax, despite dire warnings from even conservative pundits that the measure would wreck vital services. Last September, Alabama voters rejected Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax hike by 2 to 1. The next month California voters tossed out big-spending Gov. Gray Davis, and 62 percent of them voted for candidates who promised not to raise taxes to close the state’s deficit.

Go back a bit further, and you could say that what most voters wanted in 2000 was neither Bush nor Gore but smaller government. A Los Angeles Times Poll in September 2000 found that Americans preferred “smaller government with fewer services” to “larger government with many services” by 59 to 26 percent.

Federal taxpayers never get a chance to vote on taxes and spending. If they did, we might see a resounding rejection of President Bush’s 24 percent increase in the federal budget. That’s why Congress isn’t likely to allow a national initiative on taxes. But our representatives in Congress should listen to the voters they represent. In states where people are allowed to vote on taxes versus spending — from Oregon to Massachusetts, from Alabama and Virginia to California — voters are making it clear that they want lower taxes and smaller government.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer (Free Press).