Opponents of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights must have thought Halloween came early this year. They’ve begun rolling out the scare tactics – some truly frightening pictures of what “would” happen should Maine taxpayers place reasonable controls to government spending on Nov. 7.
While they stopped short of saying that people will die, bridges will collapse and schools will close, they have suggested that public safety and popular programs are the first to go.
In Washington, this publicity stunt is commonly known as the Washington Monument Syndrome where when faced with cuts the National Parks Service talks about closing the Washington Monument. These choices are a classic “straw man” tactic: vote to give up more of your hard-earned money to the government or vital services will be slashed and burned! But it is a false choice, and voters should not be fooled.
While fear-mongering may be a brilliant communications and public relations strategy, it is not an accurate depiction of the situation. For starters, if TABOR passes, no cuts will be needed. Government spending, at every level, will continue to increase, although perhaps not at the level that government has become accustomed to.
What’s worse is that by suggesting that important services would be the first to go suggests that these programs are less important than everything else government does. Further, this rhetoric presupposes that every dollar spent by Maine’s governments is both spent well and effectively.
While many government services in Maine may be performed efficiently, there is always room for improvement. In addition, over the years governments have taken on new responsibilities and started new programs. Rarely do old programs get phased out or eliminated. Could there be some functions government can stop providing to make room for new programs?
It is important to point out that the opposition to TABOR is coming from the big government status quo. These groups like the Maine State Employees Union, Maine Municipal Association and the State Chamber of Commerce do not want to see government spending reform because they personally benefit from government continually increasing taxes on Mainers. The deception that they are employing against TABOR should be appalling to every Maine citizen.
This status quo group has a track record of promising to control government spending and lower taxes, but never delivering. Last legislative session, this big government coalition promised historic tax relief with the passage of LD 1. That bill never delivered the spending restraint and promised tax relief. Now the same group is a citizen initiative that will accomplish what they failed to deliver.
TABOR will force policy-makers to get serious about spending reform. In turn, Mainers will finally see real tax relief.
There are plenty of examples of effective spending reform efforts that target government waste so that those resources can be better spent by on priority programs. Texas utilizes performance-based budgeting to identify the most effective and efficient programs and budget its appropriations accordingly. In addition, they regularly evaluate state agencies for purpose and effectiveness often eliminating or merging programs – resulting in billions in savings over time. The effort fully funds effective public services and helps ensure a higher quality of life.
Washington state and South Carolina use a “priorities of government” model to rank all government services by activity – rather than rigid agency structure – and “purchases” all activities from the top of the list down until available revenues are depleted. The least important or least effective programs are considered lower priorities – much the same as the way families spend their scarce dollars on the most important things and put off buying luxuries they can’t afford until a later date.
Each of these approaches places an emphasis on performance and results, rewarding governmental services that best meet citizens’ needs and weeding out ineffective and low-priority programs. Note that this improves the quality of public services while eliminating government waste.
Maine needs a fundamental change in its budgeting process and a serious evaluation of its priorities. A process that emphasizes program performance and providing higher-priority services would improve Mainers’ quality of life while continuing to protect their pocketbooks. It is time for government to focus on better delivering government services, instead of preying on people’s fears.
Despite what public officials are claiming, the sky will not fall and Maine will not disintegrate if TABOR passes. Children will still be well educated, fires will be put out and police will still protect Maine communities.
Geoffrey F. Segal is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation. Reason’s research on TABOR laws and government reform is here and an archive of Segal’s work is here.