On Friday, a friend asked me my opinion about the just-passed Referendum C in Colorado, which suspends the state’s taxpayer bill of rights for 5 years. Specifically, he wanted to know my reaction to claims that this suspension (which effectively raises state taxes by $3.7 billion over the next 5 years) is somehow illegitimate because it was not passed by a great enough supermajority. My response at the time was noncommital, as I didn’t think I had any distinctive view on the question. Having thought about it for a few days, though, I do have a bit more to say.
In a mixed economy like the United States, the government is a tool that can be used to tax wealth from the population at large and transfer it to specific interest groups. Because those interest groups are concentrated and organized, while the public at large is diffuse and disorganized, the interest groups have a structural advantage in lobbying the government. Because of this it is almost always easier for the government to increase spending than to reduce it. And this in turn leads to a long-term pressure to increase taxes.
Note that this pressure has nothing to do with whether the public at large actually would approve of the spending in question. I suspect that if the public at large were to be polled on whether it thought giving huge piles of cash to Archer Daniels Midland was a good idea or not, they would go with “not”. But it happens anyhow, year after year.
Because of this structural tendency in favor of increased government spending, I think it’s useful to have a counter in the form of a higher barrier to increasing taxes. Think of it as a way to help level the playing field. So I support things like supermajority requirements for tax increases. If it were politically feasible I’d support a constitutional amendment requiring a 2/3 vote to borrow money and a 3/4 vote to raise taxes. (Hell, if it were politically feasible I’d support a constitutional amendment to revoke the government’s power to tax incomes altogether — but that’s a different topic.) In general my answer to the question “how difficult should it be to raise taxes” is “as difficult as we can possibly make it.”
But I’m also an advocate of the rule of law. And as far as I know, the law in Colorado is that Referendum C only required a 50% majority, which it received. I suspect passing it was a mistake, and I’d prefer a higher bar for tax increases, but the standards operating here aren’t based on my preferences. Rather than grousing about its passage, the opponents of Referendum C should be thinking about how to go about fighting the next round in the never-ending battle against government profligacy.