For the last few years, Sutherland Institute has been working on proposed legislation that would use state constitutional powers to limit government spending and create guidelines that prioritize how tax dollars are spent in surplus revenue years. As you might guess, this government spending limitation amendment has had a tough time capturing the imagination of state legislators.
Utah has a statute that’s been on the books for a few years that requires certain spending limits, but big-ticket items like education and transportation are exempted. Sutherland’s plan would limit all state spending and, while giving the state Legislature control over spending priorities, it requires a three-fifths majority vote of the Legislature to override constitutional restraints on spending.
The spending limitation bill received a majority vote in the Senate in 2012 but not the necessary two-thirds vote to pass a constitutional amendment. So, in 2013, Sutherland called on a House sponsor to push the bill and, while the bill was introduced and fine-tuned to perfection, House leadership decided, for some reason, not to address any constitutional amendments in a non-election year. So the bill sat, unaddressed, all session.
If you think “gay rights,” liquor laws, immigration and water issues are contentious, try running a bill to slow down government spending. But it’ll be back again next session.
Interestingly, a lawsuit has been filed against a similar idea, though a very different piece of legislation, in Colorado. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit (covering Utah) will entertain a complaint filed by every money-grubbing special interest in Colorado to rule that that state’s spending limitation law is unconstitutional on the grounds that – get this – limiting state fiscal powers violates the U.S. Constitution’s “republican form of government” guarantee. I’m not kidding. In other words, a state legislature can spend a state into bankruptcy, if it chooses, but it is a violation of the United States Constitution for that same legislature to place limits on itself in its own state constitution?
If the plaintiffs win, the result will be legal and practical chaos, not just in Colorado but here in Utah and across the country. This is because the theory of the lawsuit is that any fiscal restraints on a state legislature render that legislature less than “fully effective” and therefore “unrepublican.” Special interests can employ this theory to destroy well-founded and long-standing safeguards against legislative fiscal abuse.
In a revised complaint before the 10th Circuit Court, opponents of limits on government spending in Colorado – primarily left-wing legislators and public education officials – state,
This case represents for resolution the contest between direct democracy and representative democracy. … However attractive it might have seemed, this assertion of direct democracy is not permitted under the United States Constitution.
These special interests are angry that Colorado voters used the initiative process to limit state spending when their legislature, controlled by special interests, wouldn’t.
Imagine the Utah state budget if the teachers union had its way about fulfilling our “primary constitutional obligations” for public education. Utah would go bankrupt overnight.
Who knows how this lawsuit will turn out. But it goes to show the extremes in logic, law and politics to which special interests will go in defending Big Government.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
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