Taxpayers Have Rights, Too

By Jesse J. Weathington

“Once a camel has gotten its nose into your tent, the rest will soon follow,” warns an old Arab proverb. Through the years, the adage has been used to describe the proclivity of governments to rapidly expand their scope and power at the expense of free markets, liberty and self-determination.

Most of all, however, this vast state apparatus exists at the expense of taxpayers. To the dismay of small government advocates, a decade of Republican control has not lessened the size and cost of the federal government, nor have many state and local governments shown a willingness to tighten their fiscal belts.

Fans of limited government can see a silver lining in the clouds, however, in the form of a campaign for a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR) in several states. Even Georgia is getting in on the act, with State Rep. Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula) authoring a successful resolution this year to create a House Taxpayer Bill of Rights Study Committee.

Twenty-six states have already enacted some variety of legislation to limit taxes and expenditures in the form of constitutional amendments. Since writing TABOR into Colorado’s state constitution in 1992 (Colorado was the first state to do so), taxpayers there have had roughly $3 billion of their money returned to them in the form of rebates.  It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how such a policy would be wildly popular in any state.

TABOR laws vary in their protections from state to state. The most salient and important part of any TABOR law is the stipulation that the state budget will not increase beyond the rate of population growth and inflation. Tax receipts in excess of this amount must be given back to those to whom it belongs – the taxpayers.

Such a measure would prevent the kind of heady largesse that occurred in this state in the 1990s when marked economic growth across the board fueled a spending binge that bloated state and many local governments to unsustainable size. Feeling the pinch of economic downturn, lawmakers and government agencies have had to exercise painful cuts in services that never should have been there in the first place, added simply because money was available. Had Georgia enacted a TABOR at the same time as Colorado, the state would not have suffered such fiscal uncertainty during the recent downturn, and would be operating with an expanded tax base.

Georgia enacted a weaker form of TABOR in 1999 under Governor Roy Barnes to prevent “stealth tax hikes,” which occur when local governments, instead of raising millage rates on property taxes, simply reassess the value of the property upwards to increase receipts. Now those governments must hold public hearings before any reassessment can take place.

Georgia lawmakers must ensure that any TABOR enacted retains or toughens taxpayer protection from what is arguably the most underhanded method employed by governing bodies to increase revenues.

Freezing the state budget would force the government to do more with what it has, and impress upon big spenders and state agencies that what they have belongs, in fact, to the taxpayers. Colorado and other states have functioned superbly with spending caps through boom years and economic downturn, so detractors can hardly argue that TABOR will cut the legs out from under critical government functions.

Expect opposition from special interests and lobbyists on the grounds that this or that group will be hurt by the loss of public beneficence. But that is entirely the point: Good policy is enacted for the benefit of all the people all the time. 

The last few years have reinforced that the only reliable way to reduce the size of government is to put the beast on diet. And small-government advocates are well aware it never works to sit back and wait for government to shrink itself voluntarily. As campaign season approaches, expect to once again hear pledges of small government and fiscal conservatism. Then watch how, come budget time, the dollars mysteriously pile up again.

If Georgians can protect themselves with a tax and expenditure limit on government, lovers of liberty and limited government will have something to smile about.

Jesse Weathington, the Foundation’s 2005 summer intern, is a student at Georgia State University majoring in Political Science and International Affairs and worked for the Appropriations Committee of the General Assembly this session. The Georgia Public Policy 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 (September 2, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.