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Colorado's rocky example

November 04, 2005

COLORADO VOTERS APPARENTLY decided that "we have met the enemy and he is us," to quote a philosophical cartoon possum named Pogo. A majority voted Tuesday to suspend strict state spending limits that Coloradans themselves approved 13 years ago. They were fed up with its consequences: underfunded schools, eroded public healthcare, neglected roads and a stagnant business climate.

With a governor and a Legislature incapable of honestly balancing the budget, California today is in a situation similar to Colorado's in 1992, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants voters to enact Proposition 76 (which this editorial page opposes). The latest Times Poll shows that a substantial majority of likely voters doesn't favor the constitutional spending limit, which would reduce the rate of increase in school spending and could put higher education, state parks and public health disproportionately under the ax in a downturn.

Proponents of Proposition 76 point out that Colorado's limits were stricter and differed because they specified that in times of surplus, money had to be refunded to taxpayers instead of going into a reserve fund. A Times comparison in August found that budget analysts believed that some of California's results could echo Colorado's, especially in a prolonged revenue slump. But the larger issue is that rigid ballot initiatives are ripe for unintended consequences.

Just how bad was the result in Colorado, which voted twice for President Bush and has a long history of fiscal conservatism? Bad enough for a Republican governor to put his reputation on the line to suspend the limits for five years, and for state and local chambers of commerce, especially in Denver, to put all their muscle behind the governor.

The vote Tuesday was no landslide -- the suspension was approved by 52% of voters -- but given the state's political history, it was a surprise.

National anti-tax groups are scrambling to paint Colorado as an anomaly and to discredit Gov. Bill Owens, even though he favors reinstating spending limits after the budget recovers. But anti-tax crusaders intent on shrinking government at all levels don't have to slice children off public insurance rolls or watch teachers flee to better-paying states.

Meanwhile, back in California, state and local chambers of commerce continue to support Proposition 76, and a Republican governor continues to campaign for it. At least voters, to their credit, seem ready to call a halt to this madness of governing by ballot initiative. The Colorado vote should only strengthen their resolve.

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