On ballots, tax cutting comes first

Nov. 7 initiatives cover a wide range of issues, yet pocketbook measures dominate.

Trying to prolong the 1990s wave of public discontent with politics-as-usual, voters in 42 states will do more than pull the lever for chosen candidates this November 7.

They'll give thumbs up or down to 205 ballot initiatives, designed to augment - or step around - the standard lawmaking process by state legislators. As in recent years, such measures are taking aim at controversial issues such as same-sex marriage, school vouchers, and gun control.

But, by far, the leading target of reformers this year is taxes. Despite - and in some cases, because of - the runaway economy, disgruntled citizens and coalitions of activists are telling lawmakers they haven't gone far enough in hacking taxes.

In some cases, the proposed cuts are so deep that local governments are forecasting calamity if they pass - renewing calls for voter restraint and reform of the process.

"It's really quite remarkable that despite an unprecedented five straight years of record tax cuts by legislators themselves, disgruntled citizens have put still more tax cuts in their sights," says Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington. "The potential impacts of these initiatives are huge and will have a far more immediate effect on people's daily lives than candidate selections, which always take time to percolate up."

Overall, the number of issue-oriented citizen initiatives - which are distinct from legislative referenda - is high, reflecting public support of the process, experts say. Indeed, a California Field Poll last month showed 60 to 70 percent approval for the process.

Yet this year's 70 citizen initiatives is below the 1996 high of 102, because of new restrictions and requirements that were added after critics said the process was too easy and cheap.

Some of the tax proposals are sweeping reforms that affect all taxpayers, and some are more narrowly targeted. Most are generated by those who feel state legislatures did not go far enough in recent years or ignored their specific wishes altogether.

"We are seeing a lot of action on property taxes, because that is the one most people notice the most and hate the most," says Marcia Howard, analyst for Federal Funds Information for States. "It is also the one that has been going up the most in this great economy as the market values of homes have gone up."

The proposals

Washington State, for example, is considering whether to limit property taxes to the inflation rate or 2 percent (whichever is lower). This comes on the heels of an initiative in 1999 that led to one of the biggest tax cuts in the state's history.

"We are trying to keep the momentum of last year's victory and zero in more specifically on what we want," says sponsor Tim Eyman. "Property taxes have been skyrocketing here...."

Washington's southern neighbor, however, is leading the antitax charge. Oregon has four tax-cutting measures on the ballot, and opponents - currently trailing in the polls - say passage would be a financial disaster.

Measure 91 alone (see graphic) is projected to cost the state $2 billion in revenue, about one-fifth of its $10 billion general fund. Needless to say, the initiative has strong opposition from the governor, elected officials, and unions and corporations.

"This will force us to make very, very hard choices," says George Dunford, Oregon's statewide budget coordinator. "We are already looking at cutbacks in human resources, public safety, education. This will be very difficult to do."

The measure's supporters say there's nothing wrong with that.

"We feel the role of government is merely to prioritize the expenditure of those dollars we taxpayers choose to give them," says sponsor Bill Sizemore. "We simply state the amount they are to have available, and it's their job to make do."

In Oregon - as well as Washington and Colorado - many of these measures are being led by one individual with a long history of antitax activism. In Oregon, it's Mr. Sizemore. In Colorado, it's Douglas Bruce.

"These guys are tapping into a feeling within their electorates that is very strong," says Nick Jenny, analyst for the Rockefeller Institute for the States. "One of the things that makes them both dangerous and successful is that they are outside the government and don't really recognize, or even care, what the cuts mean to the actual running of government."

Going too far?

That's something state officials care about, though, and they're taking pains to tell citizens of the dangers they see in overzealous tax cutting. In Colorado, for example, critics say Amendment 21 (see graphic) could mean possible decimation of local services ranging from fire departments to libraries to recreation districts.

"One of the misconceptions of [this measure's] promoters is that the state can simply backfill these local entities with money to keep them afloat," says Dan Hopkins, spokesman for Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. "In fact, there is not enough money to do so."

Such debates are leading to further criticism of the initiative process and to calls for reform.

"Any notions that these are grass-roots campaigns getting on the ballot with support from huge numbers of individuals is totally false," says David Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. "It's a very rare occurrence when one of these measures gets on the ballot on pure volunteer effort."

More often, he adds, they are used as a policy tool, to raise a certain issue's national profile. As a result, this November's initiatives and ballot referenda will be closely watched to see which issues get a boost.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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