Don't-Tax Democrats

One great thing about being a journalist is that you can raise questions with absolutely no obligation to answer them.
by | June 14, 2007

One great thing about being a journalist is that you can raise questions with absolutely no obligation to answer them. For example, after November's elections I wrote, "In state after state, Democrats have a choice: to pursue the goals that have energized their party's activists during their time in the wilderness or to chart a cautious course of moderation and compromise."

I wasn't planning to ever to tell you what they decided, until the answer fell into my lap at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress.

The handouts at the event catalogued some of the progressive accomplishments in legislatures this year and it's an impressive list. A half-dozen states raised the minimum wage. Gay rights legislation was even more successful. State after state created new requirements for the use of renewable energy.

There's one glaring gap, however. One nine-page handout from the Center for Policy Alternatives lists just five bills under "budget and taxation": three related to earned income tax credits, a tobacco tax in Indiana and a tax amnesty in Iowa.

Come on liberals, where's the tax and spend?!?

In truth, that label still scares Democratic lawmakers, which is why they're reluctant to approve anything that looks like a tax increase. No state proves that point better than the one I focused on in January: New Hampshire.

This year, New Hampshire, with Democrats in charge, approved civil unions for same-sex couples, passed pro-union legislation, raised the minimum wage and eliminated a parental notification requirement for minors seeking abortions. However, on the biggest issue facing the state, school funding, Democrats have been cautious.

The state Supreme Court has given lawmakers a July 1 deadline to define an "adequate" education, which the state would then be required to fund. The simplest way to do that would be to create an income tax or sales tax (New Hampshire has neither), but that's not what New Hampshire's Democratic leaders are supporting.

Instead, they're mulling over a constitutional amendment that's most notable for what it doesn't do. It doesn't include new sources of revenue, doesn't require the state to provide an "adequate" education and doesn't remove court jurisdiction from school finance -- the solution conservatives prefer.

The amendment requires state involvement in funding education, allows the state to target aid to needy school districts and changes the standards for judicial review to make lawsuits less likely. So far, the legislature hasn't been able to pass anything.

New Hampshire is a weird state, indistinguishable from the rest of the Northeast on social policy, while embodying Grover Norquist's wildest fantasies on fiscal issues. Nonetheless, the same trend holds in most states, even where Democrats are in control.

New Jersey and Maryland, for example, have major budget problems, but both shied away from raising taxes this year. At some point, though, Democrats are going to have to decide between cutting spending and raising taxes because in both those states (like many others) the deficits are structural.