Though Brian Schweitzer isn’t running for office in this fall’s midterm elections, the governor came out swinging last week against a proposal that is up for a vote: the controversial CI-97 spending cap ballot initiative known as “Stop OverSpending.” On Sept. 8 Schweitzer issued a public challenge to libertarian millionaire New York real estate mogul Howard Rich.
“We would like to learn more about who you are, and about your motive to impose such a poisonous constitutional amendment on us,” Schweitzer wrote in a letter to Rich.
The governor and other critics of CI-97 believe Rich is the man funding the campaign for a statewide spending cap that would limit any increases in state spending to the rate of inflation plus the rate of population growth, with increases above that limit requiring voter approval.
As the Nov. 7 election draws closer, groups that expect to feel the impact of CI-97 the most are on the move. On Sept. 6, the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) passed a resolution by an 18-1 vote to join Not in Montana, a coalition of groups and individuals opposed to CI-97.
In his annual State of the University address last month, UM President George Dennison identified the defeat of CI-97 as, “the highest priority for the University of Montana and for all of Montana education.”
From the Montana Contractors Association to AARP to the Montana Chamber of Commerce, opposition to the proposed amendment is growing louder.
But Trevis Butcher, the Winifred rancher spearheading three initiative campaigns as treasurer of Montanans in Action, believes adversaries of CI-97 think the measure is likely to pass.
“From the level of hysteria from the opposition, I’m convinced that their polling shows this is going to sweep overwhelmingly,” Butcher says. “First they sent out blockers to stop us from gathering signatures, now they’ve thrown up one frivolous lawsuit after another to try to eliminate the possibility of voters having the opportunity to vote on it.”
Butcher appeared Sept. 8 in a Great Falls courtroom, where he admitted that the bulk of the money behind the three initiatives came from out of state, though he didn’t reveal names of individual donors. Opponents of Montanans in Action-backed initiatives have sued to try to get those measures tossed off the November ballot alleging “pervasive fraud” on behalf of petition signature gatherers. Courts in Oklahoma, Michigan and Nevada have recently thrown out similar spending cap proposals; Rich also funded those measures, opponents say. Great Falls District Judge Dirk Sandefur said he’d likely make a decision this week as to whether signature gatherers in Montana engaged in fraud.
Meanwhile, CI-97’s critics say limiting state spending increases to a rigid and overly simplistic formula of inflation plus population growth is deeply flawed. For starters, inflation is based on the consumer price index, which is based on what the typical American consumer buys. The problem, critics say, is that what consumers buy on a day-to-day basis doesn’t match up with the sorts of expenditures governments pay for, such as schools and roads, services that rise in price much faster than what the average person buys. Making matters worse is that the second part of the formula relies on overall population growth from year to year and doesn’t factor in groups with special needs, like school children, the sick and the elderly, populations that tend to grow more rapidly.
“People that are hardworking people, holding down a job or two and raising a family, when they read the one-paragraph blurb that says, ‘this is a tool to keep government from getting too big, this is a tool to limit the amount of money [politicians] spend, this is a tool to limit the amount of taxes you pay.’ Well who in the heck is against that?” Schweitzer asks. “But you get into the details and you say, ‘well wait a minute here. Actually my services are going to go down and my taxes are going to go up.’”
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Montana’s total population will increase by 16 percent from 2000 to 2030, while Montana’s 65-and-over population will increase by 123 percent during that same period. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the allowable state spending limit, as proposed by the CI-97 initiative, would prevent health care and other services from growing with the increased need of that population.
“This is not intended as a provision that will constrain government; it is designed as a government shrinking device,” says former Republican Colorado legislator Bradley J. Young, author of TABOR and Direct Democracy: An Essay on the End of the Republic. In 1992 Colorado passed the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), the spending cap measure on which CI-97 was based. Young, who served as chairman of the state budget committee in the 1990s, says TABOR has had a devastating impact on Colorado.
“The formula doesn’t keep up with the economy. It has an insidious effect where it shrinks government year after year,” he says. “Over time, eventually, you will have a hard time supplying any general funds for transportation, higher education, and any kind of capital maintenance to state buildings.”
According to the CBPP, under TABOR Colorado declined from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 education spending, higher education funding dropped by 31 percent, the state fell to near last in the nation in childhood vaccination rates, and the share of low-income children lacking health insurance doubled, making Colorado the worst in the nation in that regard.
But Butcher dismisses CBPP’s “liberal Washington, D.C. think tank” findings—as well as warnings from Schweitzer and other critics of CI-97—as “the typical big spender reaction.”
Butcher says 52,000 validated petition signatures are proof that CI-97 has broad statewide support, and if Schweitzer wants to debate the merits of the proposed constitutional amendment, he’s game. On Monday he publicly challenged the governor to a debate. Though Schweitzer didn’t respond to the request by press time, he told another Montana newspaper, “I don’t want to debate the batboy. I want to debate the owner of the team.”
“I don’t believe he has the guts to take this issue on, quite frankly,” Butcher says. “It’s awfully easy to use the bully pulpit to present his political agenda and not allow it to be countered, which is what we’ve watched now for several months.”