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Podcast: TABOR’s Harmful Effect on States

In this podcast we’ll discuss TABOR, a proposal that’s on the ballot in Maine and Washington this November. I’m Shannon Spillane and I’m joined by the Center’s state project coordinator, Robb Gray.

1. Robb, let’s start with some background on TABOR, which many of our listeners may not have heard of. What is it?

Sure, Shannon. TABOR is a constitutional amendment, or sometimes a law, that imposes a rigid and arbitrary limit on what states can spend year after year. Basically it forces cuts to education, roads and highways, health care and other key services that support a state’s economy and quality of life.

2. Well, to some people, limiting government spending might sound like a good idea. In fact, TABOR stands for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Now that sounds like something people would support. So Robb, why is TABOR a bad idea?

Well, first, the name is very misleading. Certainly states should make sure that the money they spend – which mainly goes to health care, education and transportation – is spent well. We all want government to be efficient and effective.

But, TABOR has nothing to do with making government more efficient or effective. Instead, what it does is it imposes an arbitrary limit that forces cuts today while sacrificing investment in the future of children, families and communities. Families need good schools for their children, quality health care, well-maintained roads and bridges, and safe communities. TABOR prevents state and local governments from getting the funding they need to provide these key services that families rely on.

3. How do we know that TABOR has these harmful effects?

 Well we know about the impact of TABOR because we’ve actually seen it. Colorado adopted TABOR in 1992. And the people of Colorado – led by a coalition of chambers of commerce, parents, community leaders of BOTH political parties -- voted to suspend it a few years ago because it was so damaging.

4. So Colorado’s voters suspended TABOR because of its damaging effects. Why was it so damaging?

Well let me give you a couple of examples. One example is education: spending on education dropped dramatically, leaving Colorado 49th out of the 50 states in how much they spend on students relative to their personal incomes. Well what this means is parents found themselves paying out of pocket, not just for after-school activities, but for textbooks and teaching supplies. Another example is health care: Colorado fell almost to the bottom of national rankings in providing children with full, on-time vaccinations. And, the share of low-income children in the state who lacked health insurance doubled, making Colorado the worst in the nation by this measure.

5. What about state economies? Does TABOR help a state’s economic growth?

 No, no it doesn’t. All of the services I just mentioned -- strong education systems, including higher education, well-maintained roads and bridges, quality health care and so on - aren’t just important to families. They are important to businesses as well. Businesses need highly skilled workers and a solid infrastructure. So when a state can’t provide these services adequately - because of TABOR - it undermines job creation and economic growth.

6. Would TABOR undermine a state’s economy even in the current recession?

 Adopting TABOR during a recession is just the worst possible timing. The recession has a damaging ripple effect on our states: people buy less and earn less, which reduces what states get from sales and income taxes. These taxes pay for services that families rely on. At the same time, the need for these services rises dramatically. This current recession has caused a record-breaking decline in states’ revenues and most states have already made dramatic cuts in K-12 and higher education, health care, and public safety.

Adopting TABOR now locks in these really harsh cuts for years to come. It will make it harder for a state to recover from the recession, and harder to be poised for prosperity when the economy turns around.

7. Is Colorado the only state with TABOR?

Yes, that’s right Shannon. But several national anti-government groups have led unsuccessful campaigns in other states to enact TABORs.

Two states currently have TABOR on the ballot: Maine and Washington. We’re hopeful that voters in both states will recognize how harmful TABOR would be to those states’ economies, communities and families, and choose NOT to go down that road.

Thank you for joining me, Robb.