Time for a “Citizens Initiative”

Virginia needs constitutional and procedural safeguards to keep spending in check

As citizens go to the polls this week, their votes will largely determine the direction governments at all levels will take. There are many public policy questions at play – especially in state and local elections.

For many the size and growth of government spending and programs will be a dominant issue. Under the Bush administration the federal budget has grown at staggering rates. In recent years the Commonwealth’s budget has been on a dramatic uphill climb too, reaching $70 billion for the first time. Just over a decade ago Virginia’s budget was below $35 billion. While the shocking size of our spending increase may be unusual, the overall trend is not.

Something special may happen this year. Fed up with ballooning government, taxpayers may say, “Enough,” and, “Vote the bums out.” Voters in three states will have a unique opportunity to take back control of their respective governments from spendthrift politicians.

Taxpayers in Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon will vote on whether reasonable limits should be placed on how fast and by how much government should be able to grow. And if not for what the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore calls “dubious legal technicalities,” similar measures would also have made it to the ballot in at least six other states. In future elections, we’re sure to see more efforts to place initiatives on the ballot. This trend signals a growing belief among taxpayers that government growth is not inevitable.

While discussing a similar effort to curb the growth of government in his home state, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said that “government shouldn’t grow faster than the people’s pocketbooks and wallets – and what we’ve found is people, when they compare their wallets with the growth of government, nearly always agree!”

Seems easy enough – has your family’s budget doubled in the last 10 years? Have you seen double digit percentage increases in your paycheck?

Without reasonable limits, governments largely function on auto-pilot. They find new and creative ways to spend each new dollar that comes in.

Maybe it’s time for the Commonwealth to get on the bandwagon. Each April, many Virginians suffer from a form of sticker shock once they discover how much their state and local taxes cost. Our booming economy and a robust real estate market has given state and local officials a windfall of added revenue, and many seem determined to spend it instead of lowering the tax rate so taxpayers may keep more of their hard-earned money. The rapid growth of our budget is testament to that.

The problem is that, once established, programs rarely go away. As Ronald Reagan once said, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”

That’s because officials typically fail to ask fundamental questions about government’s proper role and scope. Contrast that to the private sector, where business leaders often ask themselves the question suggested by management guru Peter Drucker: “If we weren’t doing this yesterday, would we do it today?” While government operates differently from business, this test still applies and ought to be used. Unfortunately, it isn’t. And when governments constantly roll out new programs, while continuing their existing ones, that spells growth.

There are three ways Virginia could establish reasonable spending restraints.

First, the General Assembly can allow citizens to vote on a constitutional amendment that would place limits on how much government budgets can increase annually. The constitutional route is by far the strongest; however, it would take several years to take effect. Thus, it doesn’t offer taxpayers any immediate relief.

Second, the General Assembly can place a statutory restriction on itself. While not as strong, this could protect taxpayers while the constitutional amendment is going through its process. Indeed, Maine taxpayers have chosen this route. Rather than amend the constitution, voters are deciding on a “Citizens’ Initiative” which has the effect of statutory law.

Third, our lawmakers can pledge that they’ll simply hold themselves to reasonable limits. If history is any lesson, however, they’ll be unable to truly hold the line on spending.

Keeping Virginia’s cost of government low is essential to keeping our economy vibrant. Low cost of government enables lower taxes, encouraging investment and job creation from the private sector.

While we have much to be proud of, and our governments do many things reasonably well – especially when compared to other states – we must continue to scrutinize all spending and continuously ask if there’s a better way. A tax-and-spending limitation measure will once and for all force policy-makers to get serious about spending reform.

Geoffrey F. Segal is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation. Reason’s research on government reform is here and an archive of Segal’s work is here.