Commentary

Voters to Politicians: Read Our Lips

By Stephen Moore
This article also appeared in the Washington Times.

And the big winner on November 5th was… the tax revolt. In state after state across the country voters sent a resounding message to the politicians they elected: “Read our lips: no new taxes.” In more than a dozen states citizens enacted ballot initiatives designed to make it much more difficult for state and local officials to hike taxes in the future. Perhaps most significant — and symbolic of the mood of voters around the nation — was the approval in Florida of the tax cap initiative, launched three years ago by anti-tax activist Dave Biddulph. Nearly 70 percent of Florida voters approved what will now be the toughest anti-tax initiative in the land, requiring a 2/3 supermajority vote of the people for any new tax. Despite furious efforts by the political establishment of both parties, a torrent of opposition from the League of Women Voters, a media blitzkrieg (the Miami Herald editorialized that the tax cap was “the worst public policy initiative in twenty years”), and continual obstructionism from the Florida courts, tax-weary voters sent a thunderous message to the political machine in Tallahassee: enough is enough.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the national taxpayer rights organization that works to support anti-tax groups, says that one of the most significant results of the tax cap measure is that now “Florida will probably never have a state income tax.” Biddulph agrees and maintains that the Tax Cap Committee’s ultimate agenda is to “turn Florida into the nation’s largest enterprise zone.”

Nevada and South Dakota voters also approved anti-tax initiatives that are only slightly less stringent than the Florida measure. They require supermajority votes of the legislature or a vote of the people to enact new taxes.

Meanwhile, in California, Proposition 13’s stepsister initiative, which requires voter approval of any new local taxes, won by a comfortable margin. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, despite one of the largest populations of government workers of any county in the nation, a high-profile campaign by the political establishment to overturn a property tax cap called TRIM was routed. Instead, county residents voted to make it even tougher to raise taxes.

And so it went around the nation. Voters declared themselves more tax-aphobic than perhaps at any time since 1978, when Proposition 13 ushered in the era of the tax revolt. Efforts by the left to convince the public to approve major new revenue-raising initiatives fell flat. In California voters said no to a “soak the rich” proposal to raise the income tax rate for the wealthiest Californians. A “penny per pound” sugar tax to pay for the Everglades cleanup, perhaps “Big Green’s” number 1 ballot measure, failed. Oregon citizens voted “nay” on a bottle tax for environmental cleanup.

The virtue of the initiative and referendum powers — and the reason they are so urgently needed in every state and on a national level — is that when the elected arrogantly ignore the wishes of the citizens, the citizens have the authority to override the wishes of the legislature.

That is precisely what has been happening in initiative and referendum states in recent years. The accompanying table shows that there are now 14 states with anti-tax measures. The experience suggests that they are quite effective. For example, in Colorado Amendment I, a voter approval requirement for any new taxes, was approved by voters in 1992. Tax increases have been stopped dead in their tracks. Efforts to convince voters to approve taxes have continually failed. Without new revenue sources to easily tap into, state government in Denver is changing the way it does business. “These days, when agencies want more funds, they are forced to cannibalize each other,” says taxpayer-activist Doug Bruce.

It’s a similar story in Arizona. In November 1992, 72 percent of Arizona voters approved a “supermajority requirement” to raise taxes. According to state officials in Phoenix, it’s not even worth the effort to propose new taxes anymore. The Arizona measure helps ratchet the size of government down, not up.

What are the major lessons for the 105th Congress and state legislatures from these ballot returns? The frothy media spin on the election has been that voters want better government, not less government. Yet, when voters had opportunities on the ballot to say exactly what they meant, they proclaimed: we want less taxes, even if it means less government. The anti-tax issue is today as politically turbo-charged as ever.

The results also punctuate the case for a federal supermajority vote requirement to raise taxes. Americans have been hit with 12 tax hikes in the past 20 years; each one has succeeded in further expanding the size of government, rather than reducing the debt. At the state level, voters seem to be reckoning: If we cut off the beast’s food supply, it stands to reason that the beast will stop growing. Supermajority requirements do just that. They allow legislatures to raise taxes during a time of major crisis, such as a war or disaster, but preclude the seemingly annual peacetime quest by politicians for added tax revenues to pay for new and expanded programs.

If history is any guide, Washington, D.C., can be counted on to be the last place in America to detect and adopt this nationwide political trend. ATR’s Norquist predicts that “by 2000 every state with initiative and referendum will have passed a version of the supermajority law.” It is to be hoped that by then Washington will have gotten the message that an anti-tax fever is brewing in America.

Stephen Moore is a senior fellow in budgetary affairs at the Cato Institute.