April 06, 2020

What TABOR does to kids

Much has already been written about the ballot measure known as TABOR, and much more will be published before we decide the question on Nov. 7.

Yet relatively little has been said about the impact on some of our most important citizens – our children, who could be dramatically affected by TABOR for years to come, but who will have no voice in the outcome. So let’s consider, for a moment, what our kids would tell us if they did have a voice.

There have been no shortage of citizens from Colorado who have traveled to Maine this fall to tell us not to make the same mistake their state did. For TABOR was a mistake for Colorado, and it would be a mistake for Maine. It is important to understand why TABOR cannot achieve its stated aims, and why it would set back our efforts to protect our children – and each other – if it became law.

The Maine Children’s Alliance has been collecting and publishing data about kids for more than a decade, and is a member of a national network that does the same for all 50 states. Good data, we have found, are the foundation of good policy. If we have the facts, unmistakable facts, then we can act to improve the lives of children.

The data from Colorado are stunning in what they tell us. Before TABOR passed in 1992, Colorado was about average among the states in the most important measures affecting children’s health and schooling. Since then, its standing has dropped dramatically.

? Before TABOR, Colorado ranked 24th in the number of children receiving full vaccinations against preventable diseases. By 2005, it was 50th – last.

? Before TABOR, Colorado was 23rd in the proportion of pregnant women receiving prenatal care. It is now 48th.

? Before TABOR, it was 24th in the percentage of citizens who have health insurance. It is now 36th.

And in an issue of particular concern to Mainers, who voted in 2004 to significantly expand state funding of education, Colorado has dropped from 35th to 49th in the percentage of income devoted to K-12 education, and from 30th to 50th in teacher salaries as compared with other occupations.

There are many measures showing that Colorado has sustained significant damage to public services. Its roads and bridges are crumbling; its state universities get so little funding from the Legislature that they have considered re-chartering themselves as private institutions. But it is the facts concerning kids that should make us pause. If we fail to invest in our children, we are damaging the future of our state for a long time to come.

The facts are clear, but perhaps not the causes behind the facts. Why has TABOR been so damaging in Colorado? Why did Colorado citizens, by an overwhelming margin, finally suspend TABOR provisions in 2005, effectively halting the program?

TABOR proponents say that the limits it would impose, based on inflation and population growth, are “reasonable.” But they are not reasonable. Inflation is almost always less, and sometimes significantly less, than the growth of the economy. Over the course of years, this is a tremendously significant difference. TABOR is not a plan to limit the growth of government. It is a program to reduce government services, year after year – to prevent us from responding to continuing and unexpected public needs.

In recent years, the federal government has steadily decreased support for the basic programs our families and their children rely on – Head Start, home heating aid, and child nutrition. This puts more of the burden on states to protect their children. TABOR would prevent us from doing that. The increases in state aid to education in Maine since 2004 would have been unlikely or impossible under TABOR. Higher education, as we can see in Colorado, is placed at grave risk.

TABOR is a classic case of an initiative saying it will do one thing – contain the growth of government – and actually doing another: cutting public services at every level. Once we understand this basic fact, we know what we must do.

Maine has struggled hard to better balance the need for public services and the taxes its citizens must pay. We already have in place a spending limitation system, passed in 2005, that actually does what TABOR only pretends to do. It ties overall government spending to income, which is a much better measure of our ability to provide funding. And where town meetings and city councils decide they need to spend more in a given year, they can do so by majority vote, which, unlike TABOR two-thirds requirement, is consistent with our democratic traditions.

Children’s issues are only part of the broad range of questions Mainers must consider day to day and year to year, but we must give them their due. The experience of Colorado speaks clearly and overwhelmingly about the certain results of TABOR if it passed in Maine. Our children would tell us to vote no on Question 1, and we should listen to them carefully before we cast our ballots.

Elinor Goldberg is the president and CEO of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a statewide, non-partisan organization that works for improvements in public policy affecting all children in the state.

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