By Kelly McCutchen
Limited government, free markets and private property are the cornerstones of the American success story, but these freedoms can slowly erode over time: Government involves itself in activities never imagined by our Founding Fathers. Regulations multiply as individual responsibility declines and private property rights are weakened for the “common good.”
Legislative study committees have become the unlikely forum for leaders concerned about this silent creep of government. In years past, moving legislation to a study committee in the Georgia General Assembly was the political equivalent of being banished to Siberia, never to be seen or heard from again. It was the honorable way to kill a bill, saving the sponsor the embarrassment of having that bill voted down in public.
Some of our legislators obviously didn’t get the memo. A whole host of study committees has been at work over the summer gathering facts and providing a forum for lively debate and public input. In just four days recently, three study committees held meetings on several critical issues facing the state, and the results are promising.
First, the House Taxpayer Bill of Rights Study Committee met on Oct. 11 to consider whether Georgia should adopt a limit on state and local government spending. As the concept is applied in Colorado, spending growth is limited to the previous year’s spending adjusted for population and inflation. Tax revenues above this limit are automatically rebated to the taxpayers unless citizens approve a plan for spending the excess.
Such a measure adds transparency by applying a speed bump to extraordinary government growth and stability by moderating the boom/bust cycle of government. For example, while Georgia was forced to quickly cut more than $1 billion from the state budget during the latest recession, state spending in Colorado increased on an even keel.
Outside of the federal government, limiting growth is not thought of as a budget cut. It became evident at the hearing how much of a growth industry government has become; testimony supporting the concept of limiting the growth of government drew howls of protest from a laundry list of special interest groups.
Georgia’s state and local tax burden, as measured by the Tax Foundation, has increased faster than all but 12 other states in the last 25 years, despite several tax reductions in the 1990s. Taxpayers deserve better protection against these “stealth” tax increases, and any responsible plan needs to address spending. Support for a taxpayer bill of rights in Georgia could be a key test for candidates running next year as “fiscal conservatives.”
The rapidly evolving telecommunications sector provides a clear example of what Ronald Reagan described as government’s approach to the economy: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” To the detriment of consumers, taxes, regulation and subsidies are distorting markets and hindering the rollout of new technologies and new investment.
Wireless technology is not only revolutionizing Internet access, but could soon provide affordable access to rural areas. A new technology called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is revolutionizing the voice communication market. Even newer is Video over Internet Protocol, which will provide similar competition to traditional television broadcasters, cable providers and satellite services.
These increasing competitive options make the timing excellent for the Senate Emerging Communication Technologies Study Committee, which met to consider the ongoing role of the Georgia Public Service Commission (over and above regulation by the Federal Communications Commission). If the committee continues as its initial leaning indicates – toward a free market position – the results will be positive for consumers.
The third meeting, of the Senate Eminent Domain and Economic Development Study Committee, highlighted the greatest potential threat to freedom in our state – eminent domain abuse.
The recent illogical ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has placed all Georgia property owners at risk of having their property seized if a local government has a “plan” that would increase the value of the property. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, not commonly known for radical opinions, wrote in her dissent, “The specter of condemnation [now] hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
Georgia has no choice but to immediately tighten up its constitutional definition of “public use.” Granted, economic development programs are typically well-intentioned efforts by leaders seeking community improvements and are usually quite popular. Even so, good intentions and popular proposals should never be grounds for sacrificing a person’s home or business for the benefit of another private party.
Walter Wriston, who served 17 years as CEO of Citibank/Citicorp, pointed out that “Money goes where it is wanted and stays where it is well treated.” (He added: “This annoys governments to no end.”) Ensuring this state’s continued economic success requires courageous leaders acting to limit the growth of government, open telecommunications markets and protect private property.
The recent proceedings would make our Founding Fathers proud. As Jefferson warned, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Georgia’s watchful leaders have identified the threats and show willingness to act.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (October 21, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and his affiliations are cited.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is our state’s leading organization promoting government transparency. The Secretary of State’s office shares the Foundation’s commitment to transparency and responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars, which is why our agency was the first in Georgia to publish its budget and spending data on a public transparency website.