Rob Christensen

Problems with NC legislation to cap taxes, reduce spending

It was only a matter of time before the libertarian wing of the Republican Party rolled out its latest weapon to, in the immortal words of Grover Norquist, shrink government “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bath tub.”

That is the pleasantly sounding Taxpayer Protection Act that is making its way through the state Senate this week. The bill would put before voters a constitutional amendment that would cap the personal income tax at 5 percent, tie spending increases in the state to population growth and inflation, and create an emergency fund that would be spent only with a two-thirds vote in the legislature.

This legislation is designed to lock in what U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis called “the conservative revolution’’ in Raleigh by tying the hands of future legislatures to improve schools, universities and roads.

This type of legislation, most often called TABOR for Taxpayers Bill of Rights, has been championed in some 30 states across the country by conservative groups. The most notable is Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC.

But only one state, Colorado, has adopted a TABOR-type constitutional amendment, which it did in 1992, although it later suspended it for five years in response to a rapid decline in public services.

Senate Appropriations Committee co-chairs Brent Jackson of Sampson County and Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County issued a joint statement defending TABOR-type legislation last week.

“The real danger to our state’s finances and reputation are irresponsible politicians who tax and spend beyond our means and who rack up too much debt,” they said. “Allowing North Carolinians to vote to keep politicians from going on wild spending sprees will clearly protect our state’s financial health.”

Jackson and Rucho seem confused. They must think they live in Illinois or California.

Surely they know that North Carolina had the 45th fastest-growing state government in the country in the years between 2001 and 2011, according to a report by the conservative Tax Foundation – a group Republicans like to quote. Click here to see for yourself.

They also know that North Carolina is one of only 10 states with the AAA bond rating, the highest rating from the three Wall Street rating agencies. North Carolina has had that rating for a long time. They also know that North Carolina’s Constitution requires a balanced budget.

Last week, state Treasurer Janet Cowell, a Democrat, warned that passing TABOR here could jeopardize the state’s triple-A bond rating.

Colorado, the only state with TABOR, only has an AA rating, which is several steps below North Carolina.

Colorado has struggled with its TABOR, with declines in the percentage it has spent on education, including secondary and elementary schools, and on higher education. Colorado declined from 35th to 49th in the country in higher education funding as a share of personal income, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying: “For businesses to be successful, you need roads and you need higher education, both of which have gotten worse under TABOR and will continue to get worse.”

Jackson, Rucho & Co. surely are not afraid that their fellow Republicans will “go on wild spending sprees,” as they put it. They fear their libertarian-brand of conservatism is not politically sustainable in a democracy, and they are trying to constrain the power of future state legislatures.

The TABOR legislation has political bad faith written all over it.

It is a major policy change being pushed in August – August – when few people are paying attention and when the legislature is not even supposed to be in session. No public hearings were held.

The bill has such a bad odor that its sponsors changed the name of it Monday night from the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” to the “Taxpayers Protection Act,” in a cosmetic effort to make it sound less like TABOR, even though they did not change the substance of the bill.

The constitutional amendment had been scheduled to be placed before voters during the March presidential primary, which is likely to be dominated by Republican voters. Lawmakers changed that on Tuesday, to have it considered in November 2016.

In their wisdom, North Carolina founders put budget-making authority in the hands of elected lawmakers, who can make a decision based on current circumstances. That is the common-sense approach followed by every state in the country, except Colorado, where many have come to regret their foolishness.

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