TABOR has been a disaster in the one place it has been tried, and that ought to matter to its Wisconsin backers.
Colorado on my mind
Among many other dire consequences, the proposed Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) would strip the UW System down to its bare bones and force UW-Madison to become a private university. As a former resident of TABOR-ravaged Colorado, I can give a first-hand account.
In its last session, the Wisconsin Legislature mulled over a TABOR proposal, ostensibly intended to constrain state spending through the adoption of a constitutional amendment that would tie state and local taxes to the rate of inflation. TABOR backers say they want fewer and lower taxes, but it is a drastic proposal that spares no consideration for those reliant upon state services.
By the end of the summer, it looked as if TABOR had run its course. Then-Senate majority leader Mary Panzer and a handful of GOP moderates refused to press forward with the TABOR initiative, and the beast appeared to have been slain. But it was not to be. Emboldened by a favorable November 2, GOP legislators are resurrecting their TABOR monster.
Panzer herself was ousted in the Republican primaries by a TABOR proponent, Glenn Grothmann, and new Senate majority leader Dale Schultz has publicly committed to reworking TABOR.
TABOR proved to be good politics, but it will not be good policy. Proponents of TABOR argue that excessive tax burdens in Wisconsin are hindering economic development in the state. Tactfully absent from their rhetoric, however, is anything about the catastrophic impact TABOR would have on UW-Madison and the negative consequences that would have on the economy.
Currently, state appropriations account for approximately a third of UW's annual funding. TABOR has the potential to dramatically reduce the quality of UW while increasing the cost for students. TABOR would transform UW from one of the most prestigious public universities in the United States into either a private university or an average state university constantly operating in a sea of red ink. To prove this point, all one has to do is to look to the west at the deepening financial crisis at the University of Colorado.
In 1992, Colorado became the only state in the nation to ratify TABOR into its state Constitution, and its public universities are in a ghastly condition because of it. Since TABOR’s passages there has been a gradual reduction of state funds, and CU has been forced to drastically reduce the number of advanced courses in certain majors. The university has become increasingly reliant on federal grants and philanthropists to keep some programs afloat and to expand the grounds of the university.
Colorado State University was recently caught in a scandal when it was revealed the university routinely asks student athletes to take up a second sport because there is not enough scholarship money to support all of the university's athletic scholarships. To compound its problems, under TABOR, Colorado’s public universities are strictly limited in setting tuition rates because tuition is considered state income, just like tax revenue. So when CU faces budget deficits, it is unable to raise tuition to offset the revenue loss.
If you are a UW student and think the current budget crisis is depleting the quality of your education at UW-Madison, you had better step it up and graduate, because if TABOR goes through, budget woes will become the status quo. Under TABOR, state funding for higher education in Colorado has slowed to a trickle, and it is getting worse. In fiscal year 2003, the Colorado Legislature allocated $686 million to be divided up among the 46 public intuitions in the state. The budget forecast for 2009 only sets aside $83 million for higher education. University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman said the severe reduction of spending would force CU to "become a private university by 2010."
Not only would TABOR send the UW System into a surreptitious decline, but K-12 education would suffer as well. In 2001, Colorado spent $6,515 per pupil, which was more than $750 dollars behind the national average.
TABOR would not solve the state's budget crisis; it would exponentially exasperate it. With only 23.8 percent of its residents having at least a bachelor’s degree, Wisconsin lags behind the national average (26 percent). In an information-based economy, our economic outlook is dependent upon our quality of and access to education, not the amount of taxes we have to pay.
UW students in particular must be involved in the impending TABOR discussions, because the result will directly affect students. Whoever you are, if you would like to see the UW remain in the top tier of America's public universities, then I suggest you start paying attention. But hey, maybe you think “University of Madison” does not sound so bad.
December 7, 2004
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Jacob Herrera is a junior at UW-Madison, a "Daily Cardinal" columnist, and a former resident of Colorado.