PUBLIC REACTION to tax burdens and spending is by no means limited to federal spending. In Maryland and Virginia, just to take two unrandom states, proposals for strict, mandatory spending limits are waiting in the wings for the legislatures. Though urged in the good name of fiscal discipline, these are "remedies" with unpleasant side effects. Appealing as such formulas may seem at first glance, stringent limits -- especially those proposed as quick-fix-amendments to otherwise protected state constitutions -- can make governments even more inflexible and unresponsive than they are perceived to be already.
The most organized statewide movement so far is in Maryland, where a group called the Maryland Taxpayers Coalition, Inc., is beating the druns for what it has dubbed "the LIMIT Amendment." Ideally, says the group, its proposal "would be written as a constitutional amendment." That happens to be the worst possible way to encase a budget matter; so, as its fallback, the group is pressing for a strong statute that would serve as a first step toward sticking some sort of language in the Maryland Constitution. Though many other federal, state and local proposals are tied to specific monetary ceilings on revenue or spending, this one is a kind of floating numbers game, in which state spending would be hooked to a percentage of total personal income in Maryland.
Also proposed is a provision through which spending limitation could be altered by a vote of the electorate. That's a dandy procedure for those who want to elect mindless representatives to a legislature that couldn't budge without first holding a statewide election. No state government can begin to cope with the effects of inflation on public services if it is restricted by budget-by-ballot rigmarole.Even the polls used by the LIMIT backers show what most taxpayers know deep down -- that they would like the tax burden reduced, but not at the expense of individual government benefits, pet projects or services ("cutbacks in areas such as education, roads and police and fire protection").
The danger -- whether in Annapolis, Richmond, the counties or on Capitol Hill -- is that those lawmakers who realize the bad long-range effects of sincere but ill-conceived efforts to impose fiscal discipline will fail to 1) speak out and vote them down and 2) contrive sensible, alternative fiscal controls that will reassure taxpayers while still giving them what they expect from their governments.