The rejection of two initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot that were designed to constrict government revenue should not be misread. Mainers do not wish to hand their state and local officials blank checks, and they have opinions about how the tax burden is distributed. But they are too engaged and too informed to put their spending concerns on auto pilot, and they generally believe government can be a force for good in many areas and so are loathe to put it in a straitjacket.
The TABOR II initiative, Question 4 on the state ballot, was defeated, with some 60 percent of the electorate rejecting the narrow and misconceived formula for managing the growth in government spending. Question 2, which proposed easing the excise tax rate on newer vehicles and hybrids, was defeated by an even wider margin, with some three-quarters of voters turning it down.
TABOR supporters pitched their plan as a way to bring fiscal decision-making back to the people. But voters may have concluded that their role in electing representatives to the Legislature and selectmen and council members to municipal government works well at keeping the decision-making local.
And beyond rejecting the “power to the people” message that supporters of TABOR and the excise tax rollback preached, voters seem to have understood that state and local government must be nimble and flexible. It must be able to absorb spending increases in caring for the poor, elderly and children, and the mentally ill and disabled when the economy recedes. It must be able to increase spending in public safety, economic development and transportation infrastructure, as situations demand. And it must be able to raise some taxes when other revenue sources dry up.
State government — probably more so than local government — is prone to bureaucratic inertia. Departments, offices and programs established long ago remain, and efforts to trim or eliminate them when they prove to be obsolete face heavy resistance. Staffing too slowly thins in hard times, and compensation typically outpaces that of similar positions in the private sector.
Those who would advocate for a leaner state government would do better to prioritize spending and to target specific inefficiencies and waste — which is exactly what TABOR and the excise tax rollback would not have done.