Utahns usually favor tax cuts, which makes them amenable to tax limitation initiatives. Given the generally conservative bent of the electorate, that is not so surprising. What is surprising is that it took this long for the limitation movement to reach Utah.
Tax limitation initiatives made big news a few years ago when California passed Proposition 13, designed to force government to work within certain prescribed restrictions. The idea was that if voters approved such a measure, it would lock in any future officeholder and force him to do right by the voters.California's law has received mixed reviews, but the idea caught on and almost immediately spread eastward to Massachusetts, where I was living. Despite concerted opposition on the part of most politicians of both parties, the Massachusetts equivalent of Proposition 13 took off like wildfire.
Since a traditional state nickname is "Taxachusetts," many people thought this was their big chance to let their feelings be known and "stick it" to the politicians. Soon a massive statewide advertising campaign was launched promising the voters that if they would approve the measure they would regain control of their government. Leaflets warned against the "scare tactics" of sitting politicians who had no desire to give up the opportunity to "tax and spend."
As predicted, the tax limitation proposal received massive support statewide and became law. Gov. Michael Dukakis, who had opposed it vigorously, was forced to institute it.
It did not take long to come home to roost in the cities and towns. Throughout Massachusetts, town governments found that their spending powers were so limited that they could not keep any of their services up to previous levels. They were forced to cut even the most mundane services, and the most frequent cuts came, predictably, in education.
One by one, towns all over the state wrangled publicly over spending proposals in the approved New England format of town meetings. One by one, these towns realized that in order to function at all, they would have to override the tax limitation measure, which would release them from the spending restrictions so they could fund to the levels that they thought necessary.
Some towns approved override measures, while others ended up with a roadblock. Citizens at town meetings would approve of the measure and put it on the ballot, and then the rest of the town, who had not bothered to attend the town meeting to learn the arguments, would vote it down. In turn, the town government would be forced to cut way back and fire large numbers of employees.
In my own town of Abington, the people at a town meeting voted overwhelmingly to press for an override of the tax limitation measure on the grounds that the schools would be devastated otherwise. People who had attended the town meeting banded together with schoolteachers to pass out informational leaflets throughout the town. They hoped that an educational campaign would inspire the rest of the town to vote for the override. It did not work.
At a second town meeting held after the vote, residents decided to keep spending levels in the schools the same but cut out garbage collection. Then they proposed a second town election to approve an override measure to allow enough money for garbage collection. The psychology of this plan is that some members of the community will become more exercised over the possible loss of garbage collection than a loss in the quality of the schools. This vote is yet to be taken.
If this measure is not approved, it will put the town of Abington in a crisis of significant proportions. The schools are already stripped of all extracurricular activities and programs, and all town services are operating at minimum levels. The point is that for Massachusetts a tax limitation measure turned out to be a monumental mistake that has crippled government.
I realize that Utah is not Massachusetts. There are no town meetings here and towns are not sovereign. But the long-term impact of one initiative that is reportedly going to result in a cut of nearly $185 million and another that will cut in the amount of $141 million is bound to be devastating. I hope Utahns will listen to the lessons learned in Massachusetts.