A proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution would require legislators to poll the electorate for popular support on tax increases, rather than just achieve legislative approval.
The amendment, which Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, began circulating for co-sponsorship on Thursday, calls for state legislators to use state referendums for tax and major spending increases. According to Lasee, the amendment applies to spending from the state level down to the local level, although several communities already use some type of referendum system.
“Often the government grows too fast and we take too much from our citizens without asking them,” Lasee said. “On major spending increases, it is valuable for elected officials to have a conversation with voters.”
Lasee argued the amendment would not make raising taxes impossible and said local voters in the past have voted to spend more money and raise taxes 50 percent of the time.
“If there is a true need, if people understand and want it, they vote for it,” Lasee said.
He added voters are “overwhelmingly” supportive of using referendums to have a say on taxes and large spending increases.
Jay Heck, executive director of the non-partisan watchdog group Common Cause Wisconsin, called Lasee’s amendment “ill-advised” and “irresponsible.”
“If all we’re going to do is have a referendum every time someone wants to raise some revenue, then we don’t need elected officials,” Heck said. “We might as well disband the Legislature, because they are elected to make those decisions.”
Heck accused Lasee of grandstanding, saying the amendment is an attempt to gain public favor by saying legislators should not have the power to make important decisions.
He added voters have the power to determine whether these politicians should remain in office at election time.
Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, expressed her opposition to the amendment, calling it a way for legislators to escape responsibility. Roys said citizens expect elected officials to do their jobs and pass a budget that meets state needs.
She characterized the measure as one that could paralyze local communities and as an example of “extremely bad governance.”
Roys also said the amendment’s effect on job creation could result in significant layoffs for local communities if the ability of legislators to increase revenue through taxes is weakened.
“[The amendment] would be devastating to local communities and the economy of those local communities as they’re starved of the ability to provide the services that people need,” Roys said. “We are already struggling from the devastating cuts to local communities.”
Roys cited Colorado’s similar experience with taxpayer protection laws, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
The law, enacted in 1992, requires any limits on revenue debt and spending to only be weakened by voter approval, according to the Colorado State Legislature’s website. As recently as 2010, there have been efforts to repeal the law, none of which have been approved by the Legislature.