Anti-Tax Movement Ponders Two Big Defeats

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 11:50 am
Protesters in the 9/12 Tea Party in Washington, DC (Photo by Aaron Wiener)

Protesters at the 9/12 Tea Party in Washington, DC (Photo by Aaron Wiener)

Election night was bittersweet for Andrew Moylan. The young government affairs manager of the conservative National Taxpayers Union was watching returns in Asheville, N.C., with fellow attendees of the conservative State Policy Network’s annual meeting. Early in the night, the gubernatorial races in Virginia and then New Jersey went to the Republicans. Moylan, however, was watching the returns on two anti-tax, anti-spending ballot measures in Maine and Washington. Those weren’t turning out so well.

“I care a lot less about Republicans than I do about policy,” Moylan told TWI. “So it was depressing to watch those numbers come in.”

The numbers broke hard against conservatives and libertarians. The Maine Tax Relief Initiative–Question 4–would have placed new limits on state and local government spending and required voter approval to go over those limits. It failed by 21 points and a margin of more than 100,000 votes. Washington Initiative 1033 would have placed limits on local spending and directed surplus tax revenue back to Washingtonians, as property tax rebates. It failed by 11 points and a similar margin of around 100,000 votes.

[GOP1]One week after the election, the results in Maine and Washington are giving some conservative and libertarian activists pause–and giving some liberals hope–on the question of whether America is turning right in reaction to the Democratic agenda. Voters in those states, argued the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, “decided not to be part of a laboratory experiment being pushed by the Beltway Right.” For their part, members of the “Beltway Right” did not express any great surprise at the results.

“They were massively outspent in both states,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, “and it always takes a few tries to win these things.”

Reached by TWI, activists inside and outside of Maine and Washington pointed to both of those reasons for the defeats. But some of them wrestled with the contrast between these losses and the rise of the anti-tax, small government Tea Party movement. Conservative and libertarian activists are more visible and more organized than in any time in recent memory. Why weren’t they able to buck the expected opposition of labor unions and capitalize on what, they argue, is roiling voter discontent at high taxes and wasteful government? Some suggested that the nascent movement was focused more on the politics of Washington, D.C. than on local politics, and that this might be an error. Others admitted that Question 4 and Initiative 1033 may have gone too far.

“When you’re swinging for the fences,” said Tim Eyman, the key organizer of Initiative 1033, “it’s not out of line for voters to say no. What is the statistic about Babe Ruth? He had the most home runs, and he had the most strike-outs. I wouldn’t read too much into this, other than we were fighting for an audacious tax-limiting proposal, and there limits to what voters willing to do, regardless of how out of control they think their government is.”

Eyman, a longtime ballot initiative organizers in Washington, had a lot to lose from the failure of Initiative 1033. He took out a second mortgage on his house for $250,000, providing more than a third of the total funding for the campaign–the rest of it came locally, from tapped-out small donors. And while he did tap into the Tea Party movement for support, he didn’t find much money or much organization ready to compete with the eventual $3.5 million marshaled by the initiative’s opponents.

“The recession doesn’t effect tax-takers,” said Eyman, pointing to the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association, both of whom opposed the initiative. “Taxpayers are having a difficult time. So the money wasn’t there.”

Kevin Morse, an organizer with Olympia, Washington’s Tea Party group, told TWI that Eyman had attended a June 27 Tea Party meeting and enlisted activists to put the initiative on the ballot–it made the deadline, and the target for signatures, two weeks later. In the months between then and the election, said Morse, the activists simply spent more time organizing and putting their emphasis on health care legislation, “because that’s where the press coverage goes.” Proving his point, Morse spent Monday afternoon protesting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at an appearance in the state.

“That $3.5 million the other side spent had a big impact, too,” said Morse. “If you need more proof, that’s why big money owns D.C. right now.”

Activists in both states pointed to the fearsome fundraising advantage of the initiatives’ opponents as reasons why they never really had a chance. In Maine, Question 4 backer Tarren Bragdon claimed that the measure’s opponents had a 12-1 cash advantage that they used to drive down support. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful for 2010 who worked on the Question 4 campaign, personally put up a quarter of its budget.

“The results were not a negative reflection on activists here in Maine,” he said. “We were outspent and we were outmaneuvered by interests from outside the state.”

Still, some of last week’s election results cut against the idea that money can make or break elections. In New Jersey, first-time candidate Chris Christie ousted Gov. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) despite taking public financing and being outspent roughly 3-1. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dramatically under-performed in the polls and nearly lost to Democratic candidate Bill Thompson despite outspending Thompson by a 16-1 margin. And while anti-tax initiatives are often battered by better-funded opposition campaigns, they often do better than Question 4 and Initiative 1033. In 2006, by many measures a better election year for liberals, a nearly identical measure in Maine failed by only 8 points. All of this pointed anti-tax activists to two other explanations–a lack of grassroots support and a smear campaign by opponents.

I was surprised that the this movement against higher taxes, against higher spending, was not more focused on these measures,” said Paul Jacob, a longtime ballot initiative activist who now leads the Citizens in Charge Foundation. “I’m surprised wasn’t more effort to back them. There’s just been more attention paid to Congress, and people gravitate to where the attention is.”

The NTU’s Moylan paid some credit to the campaign initiative opponents had run in Maine and Washington, giving voters a dark history lesson on the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights. That measure, passed in 1992, mandated that any tax increase that produced revenue higher than expected from the combined rate of population increase and inflation would be subject to a voter referendum. In the boom years of the 1990s, it was a trend-setter. But in 2000 and 2005, after the restrictions produced education funding cuts, voters did away with most of Colorado’s TABOR.

“The ‘No’ campaigns hammered away on Colorado,” said the NTU’s Andrew Moylan. “But when you start to dig into the history in Colorado, TABOR was not the cause of their problems.”

Anti-tax activists had a problem, said Moylan. Until they passed more tax-limiting initiatives, it would be tough to prove that they worked.

“If we had other states that had passed something like this, that were running smoothly and well, we’d have an easier argument to make. The other side has a 10-second talking point. We have a ten-minute explanation. Elections are about the 10-second talking points.”

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Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by daveweigel: My story today: Anti-tax activists reflect on the defeats of the two big Maine and Washington referenda.

Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

“I wouldn’t read too much into this”

only the continued repudiation of Conservative economic policies.

Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

Couldn't have put it better; Only thing I'd add is that it's always a pleasure to see Norquist get excrement smeared on his face since he's probably the single biggest vandal of our infrastructure in recent history

Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

Dave, you know Republicans never lose.

Some sort of fraud took place to make the elections appear as if Republican ideals were unpopular.

Steve Zemke MajorityRulesBlog
Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

Maybe there is a more simple explanation to why I-1033 was defeated in Washington State. Maybe it was just that it was a bad idea. The reality of these types of TABOR measures is that they freeze public services.

We're trying to recover from a recession and Eyman proposed to lock us permanently into a recession level of public services after we just drastically reduced services at the state and local level.

These measures claim to allow growth based on inflation but anyone with a simple understanding of inflation can understand how that does not equal growth of services. If a gallon of gas costs you $2.80 for a police car and next year it costs $3.00 and you adjust your spending for inflation you haven't bought any more gas. It's still one gallon now costing $3.00.

And then there's the technical issue that the inflation index used is the implicit price deflator for consumer goods and as Colorado showed, public services like education and Medicare costs do not track consumer goods inflation but have historically risen faster. So the net result is a decreased ability to provide the same public services as their costs rises faster than the TABOR inflation index used.

Pure and simple these measures are anti-government, anti-tax sledge hammers that are ideological weapons, not measures to provide efficient and needed public services for diverse communities.

Eyman is a master of trying to evoke public sympathy for his measures as the little guy fighting bad government but you have part of the story wrong. In point of fact Eyman raised some $670,000. Most of it was spent buying signatures from paid signature gathers. Some 3 donors contributed some 86.5% of the money raised for the signature effort of I-1033. He really does not have a base of grassroots support for his efforts.

Michael Dunmire of Woodinville, WA gave $300,000. Tim Eyman borrowed $250,000 and loaned it to the campaign. And Kemper Holdings LLC of Bellevue owned by Kemper Freeman who owns Bellevue Square Mall in Bellevue, WA gave $25,000.

These top 3 donors in the campaign contributed 86.5% of the total cash raised to get the measure on the ballot. This hardly sounds like a grassroots campaign to me,especially since they spent $598,081 to get the signatures. That's an average of $1.89/signature.

And Eyman continued to raise money through another PAC which pays him each year. That PAC raised an additional $75,000 this year.

Even if he had more money, doesn't mean he would have won. Last year he raised and spent some $995 thousand to push a road building initiative. Opponents spent only 1/4 that amount and still won.

And we have another example here. Michael McGinn who just won as Mayor of Seattle was outspent 3 to 1 and he still won.

So the right wing anti-government fanatics can put all the spin they want on why they lost in their efforts to freeze public spending but they still lost. Many other states have also defeated TABOR type freezes on public services at the ballot box. It's a bad idea and that's why it keeps losing.

Matthew Yglesias » Endgame
Pingback posted November 10, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

[...] Anti-tax movement ponders defeat in Washington and [...]

Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

This was the third time TABOR was on the ballot in Maine. People knew what it was all about because they had seen it before and they voted it down in far greater numbers than they had before. If it comes back, it will be even worse for TABOR. What a repudiation.

Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

Babe Ruth is currently 93rd on the all time strikeout list (1330) and 3rd overall in home runs (714). While it's true that Mr. Ruth led the league 5 times in both strikeouts and home runs, he sure seemed to have a better ratio of success to failure than Mr. Eyman.

Comment posted November 10, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

The most persuasive and successful argument against Washington's 1033 initiative wasn't that it was inherently-bad, but conditionally-bad because it would lock in gutted Great Recession budgets. It was not that folks here inherently disbelieve in these sorts of anti-tax measures. In fact, such measures are very popular here, where county and city governments are regularly exposed for, frankly, gross misuse of public dollars. Any other year, 1033 would have come much closer to passing, its just an irregular year for such a measure.

And yeah, I didn't vote for 1033 because of the forementioned (locking in recession budgets), not because it seemed like such a terrible idea overall. Whether or not it would be in some other economy, I frankly don't know. The only universal fault I see in it is the arbitrary inflexibility it imposes on government budgets.

Comment posted November 11, 2009 @ 11:17 am

“People have heard of california”

The reason why these didn't pass. People have seen what happens when you make it impossible to raise taxes.

Comment posted November 11, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

Eyeman in a stain on the State of Washington. We need to use unadulterated bleach and wipe it out.

Comment posted November 11, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said “it always takes a few tries to win these things.”

This was the third or forth time they have had TABOR on the ballot in Maine.

It fails by a bigger percentage each time.

… and each time wastes MORE taxpayer money to run an election to tell them to go pound sand. Again.

The GOP establishment vs. the Rogues : The Reid Report
Pingback posted November 21, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

[...] to essentially de-fund the district, and in Washington and Maine, where anti-spending measures went down in flames the same election night Christie and McDonnell [...]

Cerita Dewasa
Comment posted November 23, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

The right wing anti-government fanatics can put all the spin they want on why they lost in their efforts to freeze public spending but they still lost. Many other states have also defeated TABOR type freezes on public services at the ballot box. It's a bad idea and that's why it keeps losing…. I'm agree…

Artis Telanjang
Comment posted November 25, 2009 @ 6:50 am

Yup.. I agree… The reason why these didn't pass. People have seen what happens when you make it impossible to raise taxes….

Comment posted February 9, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

No Taxation Without Public Consent

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Comment posted February 9, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

No Taxation Without Public Consent

Join the cause, & be one of the first….…

Comment posted March 21, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

Is there an alternative to taxes?

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Oikos Blogue | Régime fiscal : un tournant est nécessaire (3)
Pingback posted August 30, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

[...] l’avance, la lutte est féroce entre ces deux choix. Mentionnons quelques exemples. Récemment, à l’occasion d’élections dans les États du Maine et de Washington, les électeurs avaient la possibilité de se prononcer sur des « Initiatives » anti-taxe et [...]

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