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Voting ourselves into the corner



Quick, what do Colorado and California have in common? They're in the West, they begin with C, they suck the Colorado River dry to support wasteful water use.

OK, what else?

Both of them are in the midst of self-created fiscal crises which may send both states spiraling into deep and prolonged economic recessions. And both states are politically paralyzed, incapable of facing their problems, let alone dealing with them realistically.

Let's look at California. Seduced by the prosperity of the late '90s, which saw personal income tax receipts go from $28 billion in 1998 to $45 billion in 2001, Sacramento politicians behaved as if the party would never end.

Some taxes were slashed, programs new and old were lavishly funded and everything was great -- until the collapse.

Now, the state is facing a $35 billion deficit, which it must close with a combination of new taxes and spending cuts. It's not gonna be easy; for example, the affluent Santa Monica/Malibu school district will have to fire 200 of its 900 employees, including 100 teachers.

Of course, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature there are feuding bitterly over the cuts, each maneuvering for political advantage, each trying to blame the other. That's to be expected; what makes the whole situation worse is the cumulative impact of voter-approved initiatives, beginning with Proposition 13 in 1978, which have made the state tax system skewed and unworkable.

Prop. 13, for example, froze local property taxes, and required that any new tax be approved by a two-thirds majority vote, essentially making change impossible.

Thanks to the initiative process, Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature now can't simply put together a balanced and sensible package of spending cuts/tax increases.

Some programs/taxes are untouchable; so, since the pols have to balance the budget, they have to go after what's available. You can't mess with property taxes, for example, but you can soak the rich -- hence, the governor has proposed a double-digit marginal income tax rate on high-income Californians.

Populists may applaud such policy, but other low-tax states will applaud it even more, since that's where the rich Californians (and their businesses) will be heading.

And now, let's look at Colorado. Seduced by the prosperity of the '90s, which Colorado legislators/governors thought would never end, lawmakers slashed taxes and expanded programs.

Meanwhile, through the years voters have approved multiple initiatives -- TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment, Amendment 23, Great Outdoors Colorado, Owens' 1999 TRANS highway initiative -- some of which limited government revenue, and some of which called for increasing expenditures for specific programs.

Thanks to TABOR, the Legislature cannot raise taxes without a vote of the people. That's fine with most of us, but consider this: when Gov. Owens and his merry band of Republicans whooped through an $800 million tax cut last year, it didn't occur to them that, if times changed, they couldn't reinstate it without a vote of the people. Or maybe it did, but they didn't consider that the education funding mandates in Amendment 23 would force them to cut their favorite programs.

And it probably didn't occur to them that because of the Gallagher/TABOR interactions, the state's share of K-12 education funding has increased by 40 percent since 1988 -- simply because local property tax collections have consistently decreased since 1982.

In an ideal world, governor and legislators would simply get together, draft a comprehensive fix, and refer it to the voters for approval. Sorry, no can do, thanks to another voter-approved initiative that limits all subsequent amendments to a single subject.

That'd mean a ballot crowded with a dozen or so incomprehensible initiatives, which, if the past is any guide, the voters would neither understand nor approve.

So we're screwed. We're stuck with a ludicrous constitution, so frequently amended by so many conflicting interest groups that it looks like a Saturday Night Live parody.

Legislators, even if they were so inclined (and they aren't), can't do anything about it. And do you think that our quarreling interest groups might unite around sensible reform? Try putting Douglas Bruce and the folks from the Colorado Educational Association together, and see what happens.

So how can we even attack the problem, let alone solve it? Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura had a fix -- and next week we'll talk about Jesse's One Big Idea.

And it may have been Jesse's only idea, but who knows? It might just work.


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