Monday, February 13, 2006

Taxpayer Protection Amendment: Death to Wisconsin Republicans

Pretty provocative headline, huh? Well, stick with me.

Everyone knows Republicans get elected on one issue: taxes. People of all political persuasions are fed up with paying high taxes, and the GOP has always been seen as the party most likely to provide relief. Look at any public opinion poll – taxes always dwarf the rest of the issues that concern people.

So I’m asking the people who support the proposed Taxpayer Protection Amendment (TPA), most of whom are Republican, what good it does the party to take their number one issue off the table in elections? The TPA would write strict government revenue limits into the Wisconsin Constitution, which essentially makes Republicans irrelevant. The only Republican needed in the state will be the Constitution, which will almost guarantee Democratic majorities in the Legislature. Legislative debates will be dominated by arguments about why Ricky Schroeder left "NYPD Blue."

Polls routinely show that between 70% and 80% of the American public support things like universal health care, a higher minimum wage, and more environmental regulation. Republicans, take a look at your future campaign issues. Republicans enacting the TPA would be like the Miami Heat requiring Dwyane Wade to play the rest of the NBA season in a wheelchair. (SIDE NOTE – No legislature has ever willingly and constitutionally curtailed their own ability to tax and spend – states such as California and Colorado have done so through citizen referendum.)

The TPA not only won’t allow Republican candidates to vow to do a better job of keeping taxes down (we have the Constitution for that!), it also will protect normally nutty Democrats from being exposed as addicted to spending. Think filling a couple billion dollars’ worth of state deficit was tough these last couple of years? Imagine what it would have been like with a Democratic legislature – you can kiss that fancy new iPod you just bought goodbye.

Think I’m nuts? Let’s look at what happened in Colorado after their TABOR went into effect in 1992:

Colorado is a Republican state. Until 2004, Democrats hadn’t held both houses of their legislature in 44 years. Since 1963, Democrats have had a majority in one chamber or the other only three times, and they've never held on to it more than two years.

In 2004, while Republicans were increasing majorities around the nation, the Colorado Senate flipped from a one vote Republican majority to a one vote Democratic majority. The Colorado House flipped all the way from a 37-28 Republican majority to a 34-31 majority for the Democrats. Democrats in Colorado even gained a U.S. Senate seat.

So now Democrats control the legislature in what was once a solidly Republican state. What do you think will happen in Wisconsin, which actually leans slightly Democrat? Republicans have built strong majorities in both houses on a strong tax message, but who knows what will happen when that message is yanked away? Is anyone willing to gamble?

Think of the TPA as having Brad Pitt move into your house. Suddenly, you become irrelevant. Before you know it, he’s wearing your clothes, eating your frozen pizzas, and your wife is traveling the world adopting Thai kids. Meanwhile, you’re stuck at home, late at night, staring bleary-eyed at Cinemax and hoping to God you don’t recognize any of the actresses’ names in the next movie that’s on.

On the local government level, what reason would any conservative ever have to get involved in local politics again? Most of our best local officials are regular citizens who get fired up about having to pay such high taxes and run for office to make a difference. Now that everything's on cruise control, why would anyone even show up for a city council meeting, much less run for office?

Supporters of the TPA would counter that it doesn’t matter whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, since Republicans have done a shoddy job of holding taxes down. Once the TPA is in place, everything is taken care of because revenue caps are in place, right? Wrong.

Think about all the social issues important to conservatives that go down the tubes with a Democratic legislature. Kids will get coupons for free abortions in their Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. Single people of the same sex under age 25 will be legally required to marry. You’ll be paying ten bucks for Chicken McNuggets because the minimum wage will be able to buy every McDonald’s worker a Lexus.

Conservatives have rightly been up in arms lately about a movement to free “nonviolent” offenders from our prisons, in order to save money. Of course, there aren’t any nonviolent offenders in the prisons (see p. 42 of this document, which shows inmates in for “possession” and “other drug offenses” made up about 1.4% of the prison population in 2004).

If the TPA is enacted by the voters (and trust me, it will), and Democrats begin to take over the legislature, it is almost a prescription for violent felons to be let out of prison. You’re telling me with strict revenue limits in place, the first thing the Dems do isn’t to free prisoners? It’s the easiest thing in the world for them to do, and it saves money in the short term.

Think legislative Democrats couldn’t figure out a way to concoct a universal health care plan that circumvents the TPA revenue restrictions? Are they too stupid to enact a law that requires employers to pay the full cost of health care for their employees, thereby keeping the whole “state revenue” calculation irrelevant? Think Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is for this? Will there be enough moving trucks for all the businesses to leave?

Think about Indian gaming revenue. The Republican legislature served as a backstop to thwart Governor Doyle’s horrific unilateral expansion of gaming in Wisconsin. Think the Dems aren’t clever enough to give away the farm on gaming and figure a way for the tribes to circumvent revenue limits? You’re going to be able to play baccarat in every Denny’s, and the University of Wisconsin System will get some charitable “gifts” from tribe members, which allows the state to back out General Purpose Revenue and spend it elsewhere. This would render the revenue limits meaningless.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But these are the discussions that need to be had if we are to seriously look at enacting the TPA. I actually do think there are versions that could make everyone happy. But i shouldn’t take a dopey anonymous blogger to actually think more than one step ahead on this stuff. At some point, the adults need to take over to have a serious discussion of what lies ahead. I mean, let's be serious - this thing is going to the voters in some form. Should we be afraid of having an honest discussion about the possible consequences?

So go ahead with the name calling – I’ll put my conservative credentials up with anyone’s. I have absolutely no sympathy for any of the government workers that say they can’t work with less revenue. I voted for Alan Keyes in the 2000 presidential primary, because I thought George Bush was too moderate (and I was right). I shrieked like a little girl when George Will came to speak at the UW a couple years back. I spent (most of) my honeymoon reading a Thomas Sowell economics book, leading my wife to dub me “king of the right wing dorkwads.”

Regardless of what happens, only one thing is certain – it will be permanent. The best short-term solution will be to elect either Scott Walker or Mark Green as governor. I don’t want to see the Wisconsin Constitution indefinitely damage the party I belong to by permanently disrupting the balance of the legislature. So go ahead and roll the dice, lawmakers – just don’t say Uncle Denny didn’t warn you.

UPDATE: Owen at Boots and Sabers does a good job of taking me to task here. I can't say I disagree with any of the points he makes about the level of taxation. But I don't think we should be afraid to have an honest discussion of what some of the unintended consequences of the TPA might be.