THE STRIKING THING about the state and county tax referenda is the care and precision that the voters showed, in case after case, in answering these questions. There was no great wave of wrathful and vengeful attacks on government, whacking back tax rates and public budgets. Only one state, Idaho, followed the precedent of California's Proposition 13 in actually rolling back revenues. But in a dozen states, the majority of the voters seemed to be saying quite clearly that they very much wanted a limit of taxation. The returns show a sharp and explicit concern that taxes keep rising automatically, in a time when public responsibilities don't seem to be expanding.
The returns in Michigan made the point. Voters there were given two options. They defeated the proposal to cut back property taxes. But they adopted the one that would let state taxes rise only as fast as the personal income of Michigan's taxpayers, and let property taxes go up only as fast as the inflation rate. You can see the same principle at work in the Maryland suburbs. Montgomery County voters defeated a TRIM proposal that would have imposed a reduction of property taxes. But in Prince George's, the voters enacted a charter amendment that will hold property-tax revenues to their present level. The Prince George's amendment is defective and will doubtless have to be revised before long, since it makes provision for neither an expanding tax base nor inflation. But the county's voters were trying to apply the same rule as millions of voters in other states. They were trying to set a limit. They didn't want to get into the quarrel over budget cuts and who was to be laid off - whether it was to be teachers or policemen. But they had the feeling that taxes and budgets were going up mindlessly and purposelessly, at a time when school enrollments are declining and most states are running surpluses. They wanted to stop it.
What are the likely effects of these election returns on national politics over the coming two years? The next Congress is going to be full of people who were subjected by their constituents to something very much like a temperance meeting. They were required to stand up, confess their past fiscal lapses, and take a public oath of budgetary abstinence.
The first major American politician to sense accurately the shift in voters' attitudes about money was, of course, President Carter. He began preaching the doctrine of limitation when he was running for the nomination. BUt he has found this no easier to achieve than his predecessors did. On reaction - a misguided and dangerous one - is the movement in favor of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. Some 22 state legislatures have already passed resolutions calling for a constitutional convention, a classic example of the politics of frustration. It won't succeed, but it reinforces the message conveyed by the state tax referenda. The message is that it's a time for caution and consolidation. Inflation is having peculiar and unintended effects on a very intricate tax system, and the message is that politicians cannot leave those effects to run their course uncorrected.