NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Through Initiatives, Voters Send Mixed Messages

March 6, 2002

It has ever been thus: voters want lower taxes and more services. And why not, since many politicians have been promising them both for countless decades?

So when voters have the opportunity to express themselves through initiatives, they choose both -- and set up an impossible situation for their representatives.

  • In initiatives in Arizona, voters demanded lower taxes -- and also higher taxes, but only if the funds go to the state's beleaguered schools.
  • Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that limits how much state government can spend or take in -- then passed another amendment calling for guaranteed annual increases in education spending.
  • In 1999, Washington state voters sent a strong message to cut taxes -- but only a year later, an even bigger majority voted to spend $800 million to give teachers annual raises and cut class sizes, without offering any new money to pay for it.
  • In the last 10 years, the number of states where voters have put budgetary strictures on their elected officials has practically doubled to 13.

Meanwhile, in the 24 states where lawmaking by ballot is permitted, voters went on a spending spree of their own -- mandating money for drug treatment, parks, schools and roads.

Partially as a result, more than 40 states have a current budget shortfall.

Special interests find it cheaper to buy initiatives than politicians, some cynics say. Democrats use them for pet spending programs, while Republicans use them to push for tax abatements. Voters opt for both, and some state lawmakers have coined a new term for their diminished role: the Bypass Legislature.

Source: Timothy Egan, "They Give, But They Also Take: Voters Muddle States' Finances," New York Times, March 2, 2002.


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