Voters to Politicians: Read Our Lips

This article also appeared in the Washington Times.

And the bigwinner on November 5th was. . . the tax revolt. In state afterstate across the country voters sent a resounding message to thepoliticians they elected: "Read our lips: no newtaxes." In more than a dozen states citizens enacted ballot initiativesdesigned to make it much more difficult for state and localofficials to hike taxes in the future. Perhaps most significant-- and symbolic of the mood of voters around the nation -- wasthe approval in Florida of the tax cap initiative, launched threeyears ago by anti-tax activist Dave Biddulph. Nearly 70 percentof Florida voters approved what will now be the toughest anti-taxinitiative in the land, requiring a 2/3 supermajority vote of thepeople for any new tax. Despite furious efforts by the politicalestablishment of both parties, a torrent of opposition from theLeague of Women Voters, a media blitzkrieg (the Miami Heraldeditorialized that the tax cap was "the worst public policyinitiative in twenty years"), and continual obstructionismfrom the Florida courts, tax-weary voters sent a thunderousmessage to the political machine in Tallahassee: enough isenough.

Grover Norquist of Americans forTax Reform, the national taxpayer rights organization that worksto support anti-tax groups, says that one of the most significantresults of the tax cap measure is that now "Florida willprobably never have a state income tax." Biddulph agrees andmaintains that the Tax Cap Committee's ultimate agenda is to"turn Florida into the nation's largest enterprisezone."

Nevada and South Dakota votersalso approved anti-tax initiatives that are only slightly less stringentthan the Florida measure. They require supermajority votes of thelegislature or a vote of the people to enact new taxes.

Meanwhile, in California,Proposition 13's stepsister initiative, which requires voterapproval of any new local taxes, won by a comfortable margin. InPrince George's County, Maryland, despite one of the largestpopulations of government workers of any county in the nation, a high-profilecampaign by the political establishment to overturn a propertytax cap called TRIM was routed. Instead, county residents votedto make it even tougher to raise taxes.

And so it went around the nation.Voters declared themselves more tax-aphobic than perhaps at anytime since 1978, when Proposition 13 ushered in the era of thetax revolt. Efforts by the left to convince the public to approvemajor new revenue-raising initiatives fell flat. In Californiavoters said no to a "soak the rich" proposal to raisethe income tax rate for the wealthiest Californians. A"penny per pound" sugar tax to pay for the Evergladescleanup, perhaps "Big Green's" number 1 ballot measure,failed. Oregon citizens voted "nay" on a bottle tax forenvironmental cleanup.

The virtue of the initiative andreferendum powers -- and the reason they are so urgently neededin every state and on a national level -- is that when theelected arrogantly ignore the wishes of the citizens, thecitizens have the authority to override the wishes of thelegislature.

That is precisely what has beenhappening in initiative and referendum states in recent years. Theaccompanying table shows that there are now 14 states withanti-tax measures. The experience suggests that they are quiteeffective. For example, in Colorado Amendment I, a voter approvalrequirement for any new taxes, was approved by voters in 1992.Tax increases have been stopped dead in their tracks. Efforts toconvince voters to approve taxes have continually failed. Withoutnew revenue sources to easily tap into, state government in Denveris changing the way it does business. "These days, when agencieswant 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 "supermajorityrequirement" to raise taxes. According to state officials inPhoenix, it's not even worth the effort to propose new taxesanymore. The Arizona measure helps ratchet the size of governmentdown, not up.

What are the major lessons forthe 105th Congress and state legislatures from these ballot returns?The frothy media spin on the election has been that voters wantbetter government, not less government. Yet, when voters hadopportunities on the ballot to say exactly what they meant, theyproclaimed: 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 thecase for a federal supermajority vote requirement to raise taxes. Americanshave been hit with 12 tax hikes in the past 20 years; each onehas succeeded in further expanding the size of government, ratherthan reducing the debt. At the state level, voters seem to bereckoning: If we cut off the beast's food supply, it stands toreason that the beast will stop growing. Supermajorityrequirements do just that. They allow legislatures to raise taxesduring a time of major crisis, such as a war or disaster, butpreclude the seemingly annual peacetime quest by politicians foradded 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 inAmerica to detect and adopt this nationwide political trend.ATR's Norquist predicts that "by 2000 every state withinitiative and referendum will have passed a version of thesupermajority law." It is to be hoped that by thenWashington will have gotten the message that an anti-tax fever is brewingin America.