Trying to again convince Mainers that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is the path to prosperity, backers of Question 4 on the Nov. 3 ballot point to Colorado’s success. TABOR, which they argue would limit growth in government spending to increases in population and inflation, has sparked growth in Colorado.
The only problem is that people have been heading to Colorado for more than a century. More recently, Colorado’s population has nearly tripled since 1960. Populations of nearby Western mountain states have also grown rapidly. Since 2000, the rate of population growth in Utah, Idaho and Arizona — states without TABOR-like restrictions on government spending — has surpassed Colorado’s.
Since the trend started well before TABOR, Colorado’s growth can’t be attributed to TABOR. In fact, Colorado’s growth and accompanying booming economy made TABOR, which the state adopted in 1992, and its requirements nearly inconsequential for years. When your population is growing by double digits every decade, limiting increases in government spending to population growth is not very restrictive.
It is telling that when the Colorado economy and in-migration cooled during the recession of the early 2000s, people began to realize that TABOR wasn’t such a good idea. First, nearly every school district in the state was exempted from TABOR. Then, in 2005, voters agreed to suspend its key provisions aimed at shrinking state spending and returning money to taxpayers. Colorado businesses spent $8 million campaigning to suspend TABOR. Despite numerous efforts, no other state has adopted TABOR-like restrictions.
Backers of TABOR, when asked how it will improve Maine’s economic situation, repeatedly answer that it will provide a more stable tax and government spending picture, something they say businesses crave.
According to rankings the supporters use to bolster their claim, what businesses crave is workers, something Maine sorely needs but which TABOR won’t deliver. This could be why the Maine State Chamber of Commerce is not backing TABOR.
Colorado, according to an annual Forbes ranking, is one of the best states for business in the country. This year, the state ranked fourth in the ratings; Maine was 41st, up from 46th in 2006. Utah, by the way, ranked third. There was one overriding reason for Colorado’s high ranking — it has an educated and growing work force. Colorado was rated first in the country on Forbes’ “Labor Rank,” which focused on population growth and educational attainment; Maine was 25th in this category. “A common theme with our top-ranked states is an expanding, educated workforce,” Forbes said in a story accompanying the ranking. “When we talk about prospective clients, their No. 1 issue every time is workforce,” a Virginia economic developer said in the story.
Government spending, by the way, was not mentioned. In a measure called “Business Costs” that considered taxes, Colorado was ranked 33rd and Maine was 44th.
TABOR didn’t bring prosperity or people to Colorado — it was doing just fine before the initiative was passed — and it won’t bring them to Maine either.