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Press Release

Despite Opting for "Change," Voters Proved Cautious on Fiscal Issues, Taxpayer Group's Analysis Finds

For Immediate Release November 7, 2008
Pete Sepp, (703) 683-5700

(Alexandria, VA) -- Spin-meisters of both parties are already arguing about what kind of "change" Americans voted for on Tuesday, but according to a post-election analysis from the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union (NTU), voters often chose prudent stability -- not radical change - when it came to matters affecting their pocketbooks.

"Security was a big issue in this election, but for millions of voters it was security of a different kind - financial security," said NTU Vice President for Policy and Communications Pete Sepp. "In many ballot measure contests, Americans rejected higher taxes, opted to keep existing tax limits in place, and imposed accountability measures on elected officials. Furthermore, in Congressional races there may be less evidence of a stampede toward bigger government than many pundits would have us believe."

To illustrate Sepp's latter contention, NTU reviewed data from its annual Rating of Congress, a scorecard of Senators and Representatives based on every roll call vote affecting fiscal policy (the most recent Rating, for 2007, utilized 609 votes). The 12 Republican incumbent House Members who have lost their seats scored an average of 64 percent on last year's Rating, five points below the overall GOP average for the House. The theoretical median score for the 12 losers was 65 percent, ten points below the overall GOP median for the House. Depending upon the final outcome of several Senate contests, this trend could hold for the upper chamber of Congress as well.

"Statistics can lead to many conclusions, but this data seems to fit with at least one outcome from the election," Sepp observed. "House Republicans who thought they could save their seats by keeping a distance from fiscally conservative principles were generally not rewarded at the polls."

At the state and local level, election results likewise revealed no sudden enthusiasm for a new wave of tax-and-spend policies. Measures to abolish the income tax in Massachusetts and reduce income tax rates in North Dakota were soundly defeated, but in Colorado voters upheld the strictest tax and expenditure limit in the country. Known as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), the law holds the growth of taxes and spending to the annual change in inflation and population, refunds excesses to taxpayers, and requires voter approval for higher taxes. NTU and its allies faced at least a 20 to 1 funding disadvantage against teacher unions and several business interests who backed a measure to gut TABOR, but prevailed when voters rejected the harmful changes to TABOR by a 55 percent-45 percent margin. Among other important outcomes:

  • Arizonans defeated a proposal to require consent from a majority of registered voters in an affected locality -- not just a majority of those showing up at the polls -- to enact a tax hike. However, they passed a measure that will permanently ban the imposition of any transfer tax on property such as homes.
  • Minnesotans gave the nod to a 3/8-cent sales tax increase for outdoors and arts programs, but Coloradans nixed a 2/10-cent sales tax hike for aid to the developmentally disabled.
  • In Florida, citizens gave a thumbs-down to a plan that would have provided cities and counties greater latitude to propose local-option sales taxes. More than halfway across the country, Nevadans said "no" to allowing the state to make changes to sales and use tax laws without prior voter consent.
  • Taxes that officials thought were easier to "sell" proved not to be. In Maine, a measure to repeal taxes on alcoholic and other beverages that helped fund the state's health care program passed by a 2 to 1 margin. A major hike in Colorado's severance taxes on oil and natural gas, designed to stoke resentment over energy firms' profits, failed overwhelmingly at the polls.
  • Although bond issues on state ballots tended to pass, there were some notable close calls for high- speed rail in California, for libraries in New Mexico, and for water sanitation in Maine. A $5 billion plan for renewable energy projects actually lost by a wide margin in California.
  • Government accountability measures did well across the country. Arizonans stopped a 33 percent salary hike for legislators, South Dakotans rejected higher travel reimbursements for state lawmakers, and New Mexicans turned down an amendment to allow incumbent County Commissioners to vote themselves a pay raise. Coloradans have (in a close vote) ended "pay for play" in state contracting.
  • The concept of term limits continued to demonstrate remarkable popularity. Louisianans voted to allow caps on the tenure of commission and board members, South Dakotans decided to keep term limits for their state lawmakers, and residents of Memphis, Tennessee imposed length-of-service restrictions on their Mayor and City Council. All three measures were decided by margins of 2 to 1 or more.
  • Although NTU was still gathering information from its allies across the country, it appeared that many local-level tax increases were not passing. Meals taxes in Loudoun County, Virginia and Durham County, North Carolina were demolished, and special property taxes for emergency services in Alabama's Chilton and Tallapoosa Counties failed. Voters in five out of six Massachusetts municipalities rejected measures that would have overridden a strong property tax limit known as Proposition 2-1/2.
  • Numerous areas decided on proposals to raise taxes for mass transit, and the results were uneven. In Seattle, Washington and in the Santa Fe, New Mexico region, voters approved higher taxes for light- and commuter-rail programs, but in North Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, citizens turned down similar plans. A proposal to boost taxes for San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system was narrowly losing.

"It's been said that the 2008 election will prove transformational in our history, but whatever happens next, voters have still brought a solid piece of the past with them," Sepp concluded. "Americans' traditional concern over how much money government should be able to take from their wallets is alive and kicking at the polls, and will remain so in future elections."

NTU is a non-profit, non-partisan citizen group founded in 1969 to work for lower taxes, smaller government, and more accountability from elected officials. Note: To view additional analyses of candidates and ballot measures, visit