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‘Taxpayer Protection Act’ a bad idea that refuses to go away

Rob Schofield

The idea of slapping inaccurate or deceptive names on controversial legislation in order to drive and manipulate public opinion is nothing particularly new in the frequently cynical world of politics. Authoritarian regimes across the globe have long used this tactic, but it’s an American phenomenon too.

Two decades ago, the administration of President George W. Bush infamously dubbed a scheme to undermine federal environmental protection rules while providing a windfall to commercial logging interests the “Healthy Forests” plan.

And lawmakers of both major parties have regularly cloaked costly and flawed proposals to dramatically increase prison sentences and abet our national mass incarceration complex with politically irresistible titles like “Drug Kingpin Enforcement Act.”

Labels of this kind send a clear message to caring and thinking elected officials who might consider the idea of looking below the surface and into the details of the legislation: “we dare you to vote ‘no’ — we’ve already got the attack ad recorded.”

One such proposal for which its sponsors have tried to employ this tactic, but thankfully have come up short on multiple occasions over the years is something called the “Taxpayer Protection Act.” Also known by the similarly appealing but equally misleading moniker “Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights,” the TPP is a hoary scheme hatched decades ago in right-wing think tank ivory towers that seeks to abet the conservative fever dream of eviscerating government and all things public.

The proposal has been introduced several times in North Carolina in recent decades, and a group of state House members are trying to push the idea again this year. At last report, their bill was scheduled to be heard in committee in the coming days.

The superficially appealing but, in fact, enormously destructive substance of the measure: a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit the state’s budget from growing from fiscal year to fiscal year by a percentage that exceeds the combined rates of inflation and state population growth in the previous calendar year.

In other words, if in calendar year 2024, the inflation rate was 3% and the population grew by 1%, the FY 2025 budget could grow by no more than 4% over the previous year. Were the state to suffer through a period of population loss or economic recession, the budget might even have to shrink.

There are several big problems with such a scheme, but first and foremost, of course, is the absurd notion that our current systems of public services and structures are optimal and all that they ever need to be.

As I noted in this space last week, a decade-plus of regressive tax cuts have sent North Carolina’s government spending levels plummeting during the current fiscal year to a 45-year low as a share of the state economy. That’s roughly a third less than it was in the early 1990s.

What’s more, the state is under a North Carolina Supreme Court order to dramatically increase public education spending in order to comply with the state constitution.

But the TPP proposal takes it as a given that no such advances will be possible ever again unless the budget inflicts cuts of equal size on other public services like environmental protection, the courts, prisons and transportation.

And as North Carolinians survey their surroundings — the understaffed and, in many places, crumbling public schools, their polluted waterways, dangerous prisons, inadequate public transit systems, struggling mental health facilities — can they really conclude “Hey, this is it! Everything is as good as it ever needs to be!”?

And this doesn’t even account for the challenges posed by unforeseen events (like hurricanes) and technological needs and developments. Who knows, for instance, what kind of public infrastructure may be possible and necessary in the years ahead in order to cope with our rapidly changing global environment?

Of course, the poster child for the TPP is the state of Colorado, which adopted the scheme way back in 1992 and remains the only state to have done so. But as budgeting experts have explained repeatedly, the scheme was largely a failure there and the source of big declines in a host of core public services, like education.

Proponents of the scheme will note that the legislation proposed this year includes an escape hatch — a provision akin to the U.S. Senate filibuster rule that allows the artificial spending cap to be waived by a two-thirds legislative vote.

But it’s hard to see how importing and implementing a Washington-style gridlock tool would benefit North Carolina.

Indeed, it defies the basic premise of democracy to say that a majority of the state’s duly elected lawmakers would be prohibited from enacting a budget they deem appropriate and essential. What other basic legislative function would we handicap in such a way?

In short, the TPP isn’t about “protecting” taxpayers; it’s about taking away their power, and the power of future taxpayers, to choose the kind of state government and public policies they want. As they have for many years, let’s hope North Carolinians see through the proposal’s deceptive label to this simple and damning truth.

Rob Schofield is director of N.C. Policy Watch, the news and commentary arm of the progressive North Carolina Justice Center.