ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
This month the Duluth News Tribune published an editorial-page spread with pro-and-con on a most delightful post-election trend: Elected officials are reneging on the no-new-taxes pledge foisted on them for more than 20 years by anti-government taxophobe Grover Norquist, powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform. (“Deform” would be more accurate.)
A key element in the op-ed layout was an editorial cartoon showing Norquist, tears in his eyes, reading imaginary break-up letters from legislators and members of Congress.
One began, “Dear Grover, I know I pledged to be with you FOREVER, but our relationship is no longer working for me. I am so very sorry. Please know that this is MY decision and not due to any pledge I signed with another…” Another began, “Dear Grover, it’s not you. It’s not me. It’s the damn deficits. I am so sorry…” A similar caption, “It’s not you, Grover, it’s me,” delivered by an older politician with the Washington monument in the background, appeared in a New Yorker cartoon this month.
Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson bravely broke with Norquist last year when he said, “I didn’t know I was signing a marriage agreement that would last forever.”
An even better break-up message actually might be, “It’s not me, Grover, it’s YOU. I was fooled for a while, but now I see that this selfish and simplistic policy slogan is a clever and destructive manipulation of the political process and it could permanently damage the social contract in this nation and state.” Or use your own words.
As U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, of California, noted in the Duluth editorial, perhaps the best headline on the subject came from The Onion, a delightfully satirical weekly newspaper that often captures the essence of policy debate better than the mainstream media. The headline: “Congressman Torn Between Meaningless Pledge to Anti-Tax Zealot, Well-Being of Nation.”
Our state and national well-being actually is at stake. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, and our national and state civic structures are desperate for revenues after three decades of tax cuts during surpluses and budget cuts during shortfalls.
Taxes historically have been raised in the United States and in Minnesota to build commerce-friendly infrastructure, to defend the nation from attack, to educate the citizenry, to “promote the general welfare,” (see the U.S. Constitution), and to provide some economic security in a capricious and sometimes brutal free-market economy.
Owing in large part to the immensely powerful and unaccountable Norquist, the tax-raising option has been removed from the policy toolbox, even though the nation was waging two expensive wars and trying to recover from two disastrous recessions since 2001. The result is trillions of dollars of federal debt and billions of dollars of “structural deficit” in Minnesota. In D.C. and in St. Paul, we desperately need more revenue and reasonably higher taxes.
In Minnesota (and many other states too), Norquist arguably was the co-governor during the lost decade of the 2000s. Despite budget shortfalls created by whopping income tax cuts under Gov. Jesse Ventura, and then two recessions, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s personal “no new taxes” pledge to Norquist’s group and to the Taxpayers League of Minnesota was adhered to rather rigidly, and cuts and accounting gimmicks were used almost exclusively to balance a decade of budget crises.
Watching Pawlenty get yanked around by Norquist and the Taxpayers League was downright embarrassing at times. Pawlenty went to great lengths, when he approved a “Health Impact Fee” on cigarettes during his first term, to make sure the pledge-keepers were appeased and that it was not defined as a tax. Immediately after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007, Pawlenty for a few days opened the door to a badly needed gas tax increase for decaying transportation infrastructure. Then he slammed it shut again after it was clear that pledge-keepers in his party’s base would not approve.
Business interests fought hard for the transportation package and Pawlenty’s veto was overridden, while most of the six courageous Republicans who overrode were kicked out of office by militant Norquistians in their own party. One of them, Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, recently won a comeback election to the House as a DFLer.
More recently, in the 2011 session, the Norquistian faction prevailed in the abject refusal of Senate and House majorities to compromise with Gov. Dayton on the current two-year budget, leading to a shutdown of state government.
Your smarter-than-average Minnesota electorate has demonstrated in countless polls and elections over many decades that it supports reasonable revenue increases and strongly values the basic set of goods and services that governments provide. The public also wants balance and practical resolution of differences, compromising to get things done.
Imagine, for a moment, how outraged conservatives and the public might be if some powerful liberal group had imposed a “no new cuts” pledge on Democrats in safe districts, effectively blocking any compromise other than budget shifts and borrowing.
Norquist is scoffing at the recent defections, dismissing them as temporary “impure thoughts,” and waving off any conjecture that he might be losing his extraordinary power. In fact, news reports also reveal that Norquist is establishing a new political action committee in Minnesota, despite the rejection of his message here in 2012.
The percentage of candidates in the Legislature who have signed the Taxpayers League pledge is actually rather small, with only about a third of Republican legislators on the 2011 roster.
Candidates can and should continue to refuse making specific pledges to interest groups of any kind. And interest groups, which typically seek such statements in one form or another as conditions of endorsement, should at least word them as general principles rather than ironclad policy promises.
Pledge refusals will be popular. Candidates can score a lot of points with mainstream voters by declaring publicly that the only pledge they will take is the oath of office, to discharge their duties in behalf of ALL the people and in accordance with the constitutions that established our democratic governments.
There is one other pledge that office-holders and candidates should and do make frequently, and many of us even recite this pledge several times a year.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Note that this pledge ends with “justice for all.” This is a pledge worth keeping, and it’s important to remember that taxes are good and necessary to preserve both justice and liberty.
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, August 23, 2012.