Marketplace Scratch Pad

The people vs the government

Scott Jagow Feb 3, 2010

The recession has ratcheted up the tension between citizens and their leaders. Nowhere is that more vivid than Colorado Springs. In November, voters refused to triple their property taxes. The city has responded by turning off lights, cutting police and fire services and asking people to mow their own damn public parks.

More than a third of Colorado Springs streetlights went dark on Monday. The police department has put its two helicopters up for sale. Pools, museums and recreation centers may close. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. More from the Denver Post:

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.

The debate in Colorado Springs is similar to budget battles raging across the country. Financially crippled city and state governments say they need citizens to sacrifice, pay more taxes or they’ll face cuts to vital services. The financially struggling citizens tell the government to cut salaries and waste and get spending under control:

“I guess we’re going to find out what the tolerance level is for people,” said businessman Chuck Fowler, who is helping lead a private task force brainstorming for city budget fixes. “It’s a new day.”

Colorado’s situation is unique in one respect – its famous Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). Passed in 1992, TABOR gives the people a vote on tax increases higher than the sum of inflation plus population growth. That’s why Colorado Springs held a referendum on the property tax. Essentially, TABOR allows voters to decide how much government they’re willing to pay for. Some say that’s how it should be:

States that impose an effective tax and spending limit create a better business tax climate compared to states that pursue profligate fiscal policies, such as California. Critics who argue that state spending should not be constrained by tax and spending limits are really arguing that government should grow more rapidly than the private sector.

Critics argue that TABOR has crippled Colorado’s ability to provide education, health and other vital services, especially in a tough economy. This was written last April:

As the country emerges from recession, TABOR will tighten its grip on government, preventing it from quickly restoring services lost in hard times, and catching up on projects that have been put off.

Even in economic recovery, parks will stay brown. Buses parked. Police overworked. Fire stations unbuilt.

“You have a bad year,” Vice Mayor Larry Small says, sighing, “and you have to start all over again.”

But other states have considered this notion of giving voters a direct say on any significant growth of their government, rather than leaving it up to the politicians who were elected to make those decisions. Good move or a bad one?

Caption: Because of streetlight budget cuts, photos of Colorado Springs may now only be taken during the day.

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