Economic Development

Taxophobe Targets

Breaking a promise not to raise taxes is a dicey thing to do. But lawmakers get away with it.
by | May 2005

Perhaps the best way for any Republican to ignite a political firestorm these days is to break an anti-tax pledge. A lawmaker who goes back on one of these promises, however he may try to justify it, can count on a phalanx of taxophobic activists doing all they can to make his life miserable.

Just ask Colorado Governor Bill Owens. In March, he agreed to a budget plan that suspended some provisions of his state's Tax payer's Bill of Rights (TABOR). This change will allow the state treasury to retain $3.1 billion over the next five years that would otherwise have been refunded to taxpayers. Owens, who until now has been a staunch anti-tax advocate, was instantly hit with vitriol from critics who said the plan was tantamount to a tax increase. Owens responded that the budget deal would help Colorado cope with its mounting financial problems, and tried to maintain his anti-tax bona fides, noting that he had "signed more tax cuts than any governor in history."

But he still will have some significant explaining to do. Owens has decried past TABOR reform efforts as tax increases, and he has always sworn opposition to raising taxes. In trying to explain himself, Owens invoked President Bush's response several years ago to questions about youthful indiscretion: "When I was young and irresponsible," Owens said, "I was young and irresponsible." But anti-tax hawks weren't amused.

Whenever lawmakers vote to raise taxes, they can expect political pressure from constituents. But the ramifications are much worse for those who campaign as anti-tax crusaders themselves and then rescind that position once they get in office. The anti-tax movement sees them as turncoats, and its organizations devote time, money and energy to discrediting these former allies.

In spite of that threat, a growing number of state lawmakers have been break ing anti-tax pledges lately. Owens joins half a dozen governors and a few hun dred state legislators who in the past two years have reneged on promises not to raise taxes. Some of those lawmakers are finding, however, that for all the heat they generate, the long-term damage to their political careers may be relatively slight.

THE ANTI-TAX PARTY

Nationally, a few groups dominate the anti-tax landscape. The libertarian Cato Institute releases a biennial report card ranking governors on their fiscal policies; governors who raise taxes receive the lowest grades. The Club for Growth, which has exerted a strong influence in federal elections over the past few election cycles, has begun lending its name to state-level anti-tax efforts. In the past two years, the Club for Growth has franchised individual groups in about six states.

But the most vocal anti-tax group in state politics is the D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform. Since 1986, ATR and its conspicuous president, Grover Norquist, have sponsored a Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written commitment by lawmakers and political candidates to oppose any efforts to increase taxes, throughout their tenure in that office. Over 1,250 current state lawmakers--about a third of Republican legislators in the country--have taken the pledge. Six governors are on the list.

Norquist says his group has been successful at the federal level in pushing to define Republicans as the anti-tax party. He likes to make the claim that no Republican has voted for a tax increase at the federal level since 1990. "This process is moving its way through the states as well," he says, adding that about half of ATR's efforts are now focused on state government. "We're seeing the Republican Party become defined as the party that will not raise your taxes."

But in the past few years, as states have faced greater financial strains, quite a few prominent Republican lawmakers have broken ranks to support tax increases they considered necessary to deal with pressing fiscal problems. In addition to Owens, several Republican governors in the past two years--including Alabama's Bob Riley, Georgia's Sonny Perdue, Kentucky's Ernie Fletcher, Nevada's Kenny Guinn and Ohio's Bob Taft--have rejected their anti-tax campaign promises and supported increased revenue and spending. In 2004, according to ATR, about 9 percent of incumbent pledge- signers among state legislators broke their pledges.

To the liberals who find Norquist's politics abhorrent, these decisions are evidence that more and more pragmatic officeholders are simply finding the anti-tax pledges too constrictive. "Legislators are saying that no longer makes sense," says Iris J. Lav, of the progressive-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The essence of being a legislator is to be elected to make choices and to consider all of the evidence," she says. "If you are going to decide before you ever get to the legislature that your answer to every question is going to be 'no new taxes,' that's not an intelligent point of view."

NO GOING BACK

In recent years, a few lawmakers have made efforts to have their names removed from the list of pledge-signers. In February, state Representative David Wolkins of Indiana announced he had had a change of heart and no longer wanted to be included on ATR's list. Although he had signed the anti-tax pledge in 1990, he publicly rejected it in his 2000 and 2002 campaigns. Now, he says, he believes the pledge is too rigid to accommodate states' changing financial needs. "I'm still philosophically against raising taxes," Wolkins said, "but I believe if you have a problem, you should fix it."

Wolkins' efforts to get off the list have so far been unsuccessful. He held a press conference in February and invited ATR to join him as he again renounced his pledge. The group did not send a representative, and Wolkins remains on the list of pledge-signers. In fact, no lawmaker has ever successfully removed his name. "You can't get out of a pledge by standing up there and saying, 'I lied,'" insists Norquist, who argues that the pledge is binding for any lawmaker until he leaves his seat. Norquist likens the rejection of an anti-tax pledge to a broken promise on abortion rights. "Can you ever imagine hearing a pro-lifer say, 'I promise to oppose abortion--for two years'?"

The prize for the fastest anti-tax turnaround in recent days probably should be awarded to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. As White House budget director during George W. Bush's first term, Daniels fought doggedly for national tax cuts and spending reductions; Bush nicknamed him "the Blade." Daniels never officially signed an anti-tax pledge, but he did campaign for governor on his credentials as an ally of Americans for Tax Reform.

Eight days into his term this January, Daniels proposed a tax increase to help address Indiana's significant fiscal gap. Daniels would increase the state tax rate on high-income residents by one percentage point (from 3.4 percent to 4.4 percent) for one year. Norquist railed against the plan and against Daniels. "This is the fastest any governor claiming to be a Reagan Republican has folded," he charged, "under the pressure of the big-spending interests." Like Owens, Daniels says he's still committed to lower taxes and still philosophically agrees with groups such as ATR. But the way Norquist sees it, there was an implied commitment, it was broken and punishment should be exacted.

MODEST CONSEQUENCES

ATR saves its harshest criticism, perhaps surprisingly, for a Democrat: Virginia Governor Mark Warner, whom Norquist calls the "most explicit" pledge-breaker in the nation. This is technically a stretch; Warner never actually signed an anti-tax pledge. Still, his 2001 gubernatorial campaign was pretty clear: "The fact is, I will not raise taxes," he said in a debate.

Two years into his term, Warner decided Virginia's fiscal shortfall could not be eliminated merely through spending cuts. After reducing state expenditures by $6 billion in two years, Warner increased the general sales tax by one percentage point (to 5 percent) and raised the levy on cigarettes, a sensitive subject in tobacco-growing Virginia. Republican legislators organized town meetings across the state to rally opposition to Warner's tax plan. But effective citizen opposition was minimal, and the state's Republican legislature ultimately passed an even bigger tax increase, a full $700 million more than Warner's proposed $1.1 billion.

Thirty-four Virginia Republicans, including Senate Finance Chairman John Chichester, voted to raise taxes. Those lawmakers' faces now grace an ATR poster under the heading, "Virginia's Least Wanted," and ATR has vowed to do everything it can to end the careers of the Republicans who voted on Warner's side. It's too early to assess the real political impact--primary elections for Virginia lawmakers will be held in June, and some assessment will be possible then. So far, however, public support for the tax plan seems to be holding in the business community, and polls show little erosion among the electorate in general.

Indeed, a broken tax pledge rarely penalizes lawmakers politically, says David Brunori, a tax analyst for State Tax Notes who opposes such pledges. "Very few politicians have ever lost their seat because they broke their pledge never to raise taxes," he says. "There are hardly any examples."

Grover Norquist argues that's not the true test. "Republicans who raise taxes may not always lose in the next primary, but they're not going to be promoted," he says. "There are some Colorado Republicans who voted with the governor to change TABOR. But no one with any political future did." Norquist points to Nebraska Speaker Curt Bromm, who unsuccessfully ran for a U.S. House seat in 2004. Bromm lost in the Republican primary, Norquist says, because of his support of tax increases in 2003.

Whether or not an official is politically hurt by breaking an anti- tax pledge, however, he or she can expect some drastic change in political friendships and alliances. As recently as March of this year, Owens received an "A" on the Cato Institute's report card. In 2003, Norquist was touting the Colorado governor as a candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Daniels received a "Hero of the American Taxpayer" award from Americans for Tax Reform in 2002. Now all of them have become virtual pariahs to the organizations that helped them gain power in the first place.

In the opinion of Brunori, who frequently debates Norquist on fiscal policy, the recent spate of broken pledges doesn't signal a shift away from low-tax policy, just away from the influence of the unyielding anti-tax activists. "There are times when the government simply needs more money," Brunori says, "and even the most ardent low-tax conservative recognizes that. They recognize that the government's got to raise taxes, and they're not punished."

Those arguments won't stop the anti-tax movement from continuing to sound the alarm whenever a lawmaker breaks his pledge. And judging by the increased number of lawmakers willing to take that step, there will be plenty of alarms sounded in the months ahead.

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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