Been there, dumped that: Colorado’s lessons lost on Pawlenty


As both a Minnesota and Colorado taxpayer, I’ve watched in dismay as my adopted state slouches closer to my home state in matters of budgets and taxation. So far, I’ve kept my residence and income taxes here, but if the gap closes further, I’ll have less reason to resist the tug of family, mountains and milder weather in the west.

Only this week, voters in two states looked at the carnage wrought by constitutional budgetary handcuffs and rejected a ballot measure similar to Colorado’s TABOR.

But that didn’t dissuade Gov. Pawlenty. Today, he made official his aspirations to turn out the lights after he leaves the governor’s office.

Growth and Justice is a progressive economic think tank committed to making Minnesota’s economy simultaneously more prosperous, fair, and environmentally sustainable.

His proposed a constitutional amendment to limit future biennium spending to the past biennium’s revenues is TABOR in spirit, if not in structure. (Minnesota Budget Project’s Christina Wessel says it’s actually more restrictive.)

As I wrote earlier this year about the allure of limits:

Colorado went furthest in imposing what the state’s Bell Policy Center calls “the most restrictive tax and spending limitation in the country” – TABOR, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Designed to hold down taxes and shrink government, TABOR requires voters to approve tax increases that exceed a certain formula of growth. About 90 percent of revenues are dedicated, leaving little room to deal with changing conditions. Fed up with how the state was shortchanging education and transportation, Coloradoans have twice voted to loosen TABOR’s revenue straightjacket.

Among those Coloradoans calling for TABOR’s suspension was then-Gov. Bill Owens (R), who had helped push through the amendment and then was forced to run the state under the limits it imposed.

Our governor, however, conveniently offers his amendment as he heads out the door. As Senate DFLers have already pointed out [PDF], it’s a “do as I say, not as I did” moment.

And the proposed amendment does nothing to address the shift of spending from state government to local governments, which has been one hallmark of Gov. Pawlenty’s purported fiscal discipline.

House Majority Leader and candidate for governor Rep. Margaret Kelliher Anderson also saw the parallels with the Colorado experience. She cited a report [PDF] from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that charts the state’s decline under TABOR.

It’s breathtaking how a state that is one of the most well-educated and prosperous has raced to the bottom in so many measures. Colorado has fallen:

  • from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income.
  • from 30th to 50th in average teacher salary compared to average pay in other occupations
  • from 35th to 48th in college and university funding as a share of personal income 
  • from 20th to 48th for the percentage of low-income non-elderly adults covered under health insurance
  • to 49th in the percentage of both low-income non-elderly adults and low-income children covered by Medicaid
  • to dead last in share of low-income children lacking health insurance.

Mark Dayton, another candidate who’d be stuck with Pawlenty’s measure if elected, calls it the “Destroy Minnesota Amendment” and challenges him to prove he truly believes it would work – by limiting his presidential campaign spending for the next two years to what he has raised during the previous biennium.

History is instructive and ridicule is tempting. But the best response to this amendment will come from legislators doing their job each session – and not wasting their time on stunts.