“We’re All 49th”: Colorado TABOR-Bashing, Northwest Style

It seems like whenever another state proposes a taxpayer-friendly ballot measure, the big government crowd turns up the scare factor by looking at Colorado and dredging up the same discredited and refuted statistics [PDF – full disclosure: I am the author of the linked Independence Institute publication].

The latest round comes from Washington State, where proponents are pushing Initiative 960 to require lawmakers to reach a supermajority or receive voter consent in order to raise taxes. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about the measure itself, though it sounds like a fine idea on its face.

What has me convinced that Washington State likely would benefit from the proposal is the fact that leading opponents have dug into the well of misleading arguments, using Colorado as their trumped up case study. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer appears to be carrying the water for opponents. Writes lawyer and guest columnist Knoll Lowney:

I-960 is loosely patterned after a 1992 constitutional amendment enacted in Colorado. After its passage there, Colorado fell to 49th in education funding and dead last in the number of children who received their full vaccinations from disease. Ultimately, Colorado had to pull the plug on the failed experiment to start recovering its economy. That’s not what we want for Washington.

In the Post-Intelligencer blog, writer Chris McGann uncritically quotes a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association (WEA) (recently slapped down hard by a unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court):

“When Colorado passed a measure with similar supermajority requirements, their education funding dropped to 49th in the nation,” said Mary Lindquist, President of the Washington Education Association. “It isn’t idle speculation, it’s fact: when you tie the hands of the legislature on their number one constitutional requirement, education funding, there will be effects in the classroom.”

First of all, Lindquist misunderstands Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which does not have supermajority requirements. It simply limits the growth of government and requires tax increases to be approved by a vote of the affected taxpayers. And for the record, Colorado is not – and never has been – 49th (or anything approaching the low ranking) among states in funding K-12 education.

Several years ago, Colorado ranked 49th in terms of current spending per pupil as a percentage of $1,000 of personal income. In other words, as the state’s economy boomed during the 90s, the denominator of personal income outpaced the real growth of per pupil spending. The US Census Bureau currently ranks Colorado 47th in K-12 dollars spent as a ratio of personal income but 31st in actual dollars spent per pupil. If the WEA president would use her own national organization’s statistics, she’d have to say Colorado ranks 25th in the nation in current spending per pupil (see table 5).

Colorado passed TABOR in 1992. From 1989 to 2003 the state’s total K-12 education spending increased 17 percent – after factoring out the growing pupil count and the inflationary value of the dollar.

Furthermore, the claims about Colorado being last in vaccinations is a blatant distortion of statistical reality. Another Independence Institute publication explains:

Detractors also claim that TABOR limits Colorado’s health spending and that things are so bad that the state ranks last in childhood immunizations. These bogus claims are based on willful misinterpretation of the National Immunization Survey, a telephone survey of the immunization status of children under age 3. Estimates of coverage rates in states with relatively small populations are estimated from small samples and are subject to error. The Centers for Disease Control note this in the information they publish with the surveys. In 2002, the point estimate of coverage for Colorado for a couple of the vaccine series was lower than any other state. However, when the errors caused by small samples were considered, it was likely that Colorado had immunization rates that were similar to other states like it. As one would expect if mere statistical variation caused the low ranking, 2005 immunization data put Colorado nowhere near the bottom. Little evidence exists to show that Colorado’s population health is affected by TABOR. On most health surveys Colorado’s population does quite well, enjoying relatively low rates of Medicaid enrollment, disability, and obesity.

Even facts, stubborn things that they are, can be hard to dislodge the Chicken Littles from repeating distorted and discredited data in their collective effort to prevent taxpayer empowerment. If all states rank 49th (or lower), their logic goes, then all states need to keep raising taxes and increasing spending.

The tactic can be scary, taking enough voters’ eyes off the focus on outputs (how little bang government spending gets for the buck) and onto distorted rankings of inputs. Slick as they often are, however the Chicken Littles just happen to be plain wrong.


  1. Not a Neo Con says

    I just read at The Colorado Index that you’re forcing him to do all the work in your little Schaffer v. Udall project. Shame on you, Ben DeGrow. You need to pick up the slack and not stick others with your responsibilities.

  2. says

    Please know your facts before you write, and don’t be afraid to identify yourself here.


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