Taxpayer Bill of Rights Under Threat

Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, strictly limits government spending. But now, one of its main backers — Republican Gov. Bill Owens — wants to put the spending cap on hold because state finances are suffering. And supporters say they feel betrayed.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

TABOR, T-A-B-O-R--it's an acronym for Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a measure that strictly limits government spending. Conservative backers are pushing TABORs in states across the country. Colorado voters passed one back in 1992. But now one of the bill's main backers, Republican Governor Bill Owens, wants to put the spending cap on hold because state finances are in a bind. But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, supporters say they feel betrayed.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Governor Owens now wants Colorado voters to lift the spending cap for five years, so he finds himself on local television debating fellow conservatives; in this case, the head of a conservative think tank, Jon Caldera.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: Allow me to finish this point.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm not interrupting you.

Unidentified Man #1: It is amazing...

Unidentified Man #2: Don't accuse me of interrupting until I do.

Unidentified Man #1: It is amazing...

BRADY: Owens argues that the only way to save TABOR is to abandon it temporarily; otherwise vital services will be cut.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Governor BILL OWENS (Republican, Colorado): I'm a strong conservative, and, really, what I'm trying to do is protect TABOR because I do believe that unless we allow this to happen, TABOR itself is going to break in the next few years.

BRADY: Colorado's TABOR pegs government spending to inflation and population growth. Any extra money collected has to be refunded to taxpayers. But while TABOR sets a ceiling, it doesn't set a floor. When the state has to cut spending in economically lean years, a new, lower cap goes into effect. It's known as the ratchet effect. That happened during a recession in 2001. Meanwhile, Colorado faces mandated spending increases for K through 12 education and medical care. So money available for everything else, like roads and colleges, has shrunk dramatically. Governor Owens says there's no fat left to cut.

Originally the governor wanted to lift the caps for just two years instead of five, but Democrats took control of the state Legislature last November, and they've never been fans of TABOR. Political analyst Floyd Ciruli says this is the best deal the governor could negotiate.

Mr. FLOYD CIRULI (Political Analyst): I think he's making the argument: `Republicans, we've just got to be realistic here. Given what happened in the last election, given the current economy, this is the best compromise we get. Let's just go forward and move on.'

BRADY: That doesn't convince advocates for smaller governor. Grover Norquist heads Americans for Tax Reform. He says Owens has hurt his political future.

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Americans for Tax Reforms): Governor Bill Owens of Colorado is somebody that every conservative and Republican had on his short list of three or four people who might be president after George W. Bush left office. And now nobody has him on the list.

BRADY: This dispute isn't just about Colorado or the governor's political future. Colorado is considered the model for other TABORs, and Norquist says it still is.

Mr. NORQUIST: It has served its purpose in interesting the rest of the country and the other states in spending limitation. And having done so, if it gets a hole poked in it, that's very bad for the people of Colorado, but the people of Maine and Ohio are already deciding they want that kind of protection, whether or not the governor of Colorado wants it for his children.

BRADY: Norquist says efforts to pass TABORs are under way in Maine, Oklahoma, Nevada, Arizona and Ohio. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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