Head to Head: Is Norquist’s pledge good or bad for California?

December 6, 2012 

The Issue: Lobbyist Grover Norquist pioneered the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," which since 1986 has asked candidates for federal and state office to commit themselves in writing to oppose all tax increases. The state pledge reads, "I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."

Is Norquist’s pledge good or bad for California?

Jon Fleischman is filling in this week for Ben Boychuk in Head to Head. Ben and Pia Lopez will return next week.

Jon Fleischman: Good

Californians are among the highest-taxed people in America. Whether you look at our income, sales or even our property taxes, the residents of most other states pay less than we do.

I think it is critical that we elect more people to the state Legislature who are willing to commit that they will not increase our tax burden to even higher levels.

To be clear, the no-tax pledge is not a pledge to a lobbyist, or to a Washington, D.C., group. It is a pledge to the taxpayers of a legislative district, made by a candidate, making the promise that they will not raise taxes.

One of the reasons so many candidates commit in their campaigns that they will not raise taxes is because there is a history of candidates running for office using anti-tax increase rhetoric, but then voting for higher taxes in office.

An example of this would be former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who included a lot of anti-tax rhetoric in his campaign to replace Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election.

Before Schwarzenegger left office, however, he signed the largest tax increase in state history, boosting income, sales and car taxes. He had not signed a written pledge.

Opponents of pledges to oppose tax increases typically argue that in doing so, those who signed such pledges take themselves "out of the game" for wheeling and dealing in the state Capitol.

They argue that raising taxes in return for achieving other policy objectives is good public policy. The problem is that this has not worked out for Californians, who as I mentioned are paying more in taxes than most other Americans.

And what are we getting for the high taxes that we are paying? A Legislature almost wholly owned by public employee unions that has built up massive unfunded pension liabilities, left us with chronic budget deficits, and continues to promulgate laws and rules that do harm to the economy, making it harder for private sector economic recovery.

The problem in our state Legislature is not the minority of state legislators who have signed a pledge not to raise our taxes – it's that we need a majority in the Senate and Assembly to stop looking to the taxpayers of this state as an ATM machine, "withdrawing" money to cover their profligate spending.

Pia Lopez: Bad

Methinks Jon doth protest too much. Look at actual tax burden.

Californians are taxed somewhat more than people in the average U.S. state – $3,953 per capita vs. $3,055 in the average state in 2010.

New York taxation is much higher at $5,151 per capita – Texas, much lower at $2,221. My guess is that Californians would not want to be either Texas or New York.

The issue is: What do we want California to be? How much does that cost, and are we willing to pay?

The problem comes where we expect more from K-12 education, health care (primarily for the elderly), higher education and prisons – 91 percent of the state's budget – than we want to pay.

That is where the no-tax pledge, which Grover Norquist says he conceived at age 12, comes in. Politicians binding themselves "to oppose any and all tax increases" encourages irresponsibility.

The idea originally, it seems, was to "starve the beast." Hey, if we cut taxes, then government will have to spend less, right? William Niskanen, chairman of President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors, has pointed out the problem with such thinking: Cutting taxes does not reduce the amount of services voters demand.

Thus, government spending actually grows because tax cuts make government look cheaper than it actually is, so people want more of it.

This is not just about pledgers taking themselves out of "wheeling and dealing" in the state Capitol, as Jon puts it. It is about elected representatives taking themselves out of any discussion on how to match spending priorities and revenue.

Voters in this last election shifted the dynamic somewhat. By approving Proposition 30, they said they had had enough of the cuts of the last five years – during the steep economic downturn – and were willing to enact temporary tax increases to stabilize the state's financial situation.

It would have been better for legislators to have done that – rather than putting it on voters. But with a two-thirds vote requirement for legislators to raise taxes and a Republican minority tied to the Norquist pledge, that was not possible. So Gov. Jerry Brown had to go to voters.

What services do Californians believe their government should provide, and what taxes are they willing to pay for those services? Rather than make stupid, rigid pledges that drive deficits, let's have that discussion.

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