howardnlby Howard Stephenson

The right of initiative and referendum is an important tool to safeguard the people’s ability to override unresponsive elected officials who, from time to time might ignore the will of the majority regarding a single issue.  Twenty-five of the fifty states have Constitutions which allow direct legislation through citizen initiatives.  Most of these states are West of the Mississippi River.
In some states, voters have been schizophrenic in their treatment of ballot initiatives.  Colorado voters, who enacted a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) which restricts growth in government revenue, also approved Amendment 23, which requires an ever-increasing portion of the budget to be dedicated to K-12 education.  Consequently, the Colorado state budget is facing severe cuts as education spending absorbs any increases in revenues.  TABOR was pushed by the fiscal conservative crowd while Amendment 23 was pushed by the teacher unions. Colorado voters approved both of these incompatible measures.

Oregon’s Bill Sizemore has become the nation’s leading Initiative sponsor, having placed numerous measures on the Oregon Ballot.  Fortunately for Oregon, Sizemore’s thrust has been in the areas of limited government and lower taxes.  He has learned over the years that more than anything else, the ballot language describing the measure has the most significant effect on the success of the Initiative.

California’s experience with initiatives took off in 1978 when Proposition 13 put a 1% cap on property taxes.  Since the tax cutting initiatives of the ’70s and ’80s, the spending lobby has also utilized the power of the ballot initiative.  In recent years, increasing debt and taxes by initiative has been a significant factor in destabilizing California’s finances, credit rating and budget.

These initiatives generally target select groups of taxpayers for higher taxes and dedicate the tax revenue for new spending programs.  Special interests want a special deal: They want permanent funding with new taxes, spending that is locked in, and spending for which no one is accountable.

According to Larry McCarthy of  the California Taxpayers Association, manipulation of the initiative process is becoming more evident each election cycle in California. Hucksters use slick sales pitches to gather signatures and PR firms spend millions to sway voters. Passage of these tax measures results in the diversion of billions of tax dollars over short periods of time.

The Utah Experience

Over the years, Utah voters have been quite discriminating in evaluating ballot initiatives.  Voters have determined since 1960 that only four of eighteen initiatives on the Utah statewide ballot were worthy of approval.  However, the techniques used in California and Colorado have recently come to Utah, and the spending lobby is determined to break their losing streak in Utah by pumping more and more out-of-state dollars into slick campaigns.

The spending lobby realizes that tax increases are more easily achieved at the ballot box than through the legislative process. After all, misinforming the public with an extensive well-financed media campaign backed up with favorable media coverage and sympathetic editorial boards is easier than persuading elected legislators to support bad public policy, especially when taxpayers have a watchdog group that lobbies legislators on an individual basis and speaks to these issues in committee hearings.

Initiative 1 – the so-called open space tax – was a surprising setback for the spending lobby, but the spenders are already regrouping and will be back in 2006 and 2008 to target taxpayers with more state and local tax increases by ballot initiatives. This time, it won’t just be the environmentalists but the entire spending coalition, including poverty groups, government employees, mass transit supporters, the education establishment, and people who feel that taxpayers should build stadiums for professional soccer teams.

The Utah Taxpayers Association led the successful fight to defeat Initiative 1, despite being outspent 40 to 1. The Association helped to frame the debate, identified the problems with the initiative, formed a coalition of supporters, and explained to voters why Initiative 1 needed to be defeated.

Next time, we will have to step up our efforts even more. To stop the spending lobby in 2006 and 2008, we need to let Utah’s taxpayers know that –

· Utahns already bear the 3rd highest state/local tax and fee burden in the nation.

· Government need to focus on critical needs such as transportation, education, and public safety and not nice-to-haves like downtown soccer stadiums.

· Government needs to address critical problems with sound fiscal proposals, not sound-good touchy-feely programs that do not adequately and efficiently address the problems.

· Government spending can be made more efficient and productive by instituting sound reforms, such as tuition tax credits and vouchers.

· Government needs to scrutinize existing policies, including the wasteful and counterproductive practice of giving millions of tax dollars per year through RDAs to developers.

In 2002, the spending lobby tried to raise taxes by initiative. They spent less than $500,000 and received 38% of the vote. In 2004, after learning from their mistakes in 2002, they tried again, spent nearly $2 million, and increased their share of the vote to 45%. In 2006, they will be back with even more money, a bigger coalition, sharper sound bites, and a slicker PR campaign. The Utah Taxpayers Association needs your help to stop them once again.

As the spending lobby gets more sophisticated and has more money to burn, taxpayers need to pool their resources to defeat the next tax increase proposals. That’s why every taxpayer should assist in establishing a campaign fund to fight tax & spend initiatives.  To learn more how you can do this, go to .