Sunday, August 14, 2005

Why Grover Can't Govern
There's a sense in which it's hard to blame people for voting Republican. In effect, irresponsible candidates tell voters that "it's your money," and promise to cut taxes without imposing any pain as far as reductions in government services. Granted, you'd think that this has all happened enough times for a "fool me once, shame on you; fool me (many times), shame on me" to have taken hold... but the idea of paying less in taxes while getting more in services certainly has its appeal.

Except that when you have to balance budgets, as many governors and local officials do, the free ride can't last. And the battle between ideologues and public officials eventually is joined:

There are circles in which the ultimate Colorado icon is neither Snowmass Mountain nor Coors beer, but a set of fiscal handcuffs called the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights.

That constitutional cap on state and local spending, imposed in 1992, has been so effective in curbing government growth that tax opponents are making it the centerpiece of a national campaign. Similar measures are headed for the ballot this fall in California and perhaps Ohio, and parallel efforts are under way in more than a dozen other states.

For some, the long-term targets include Washington, where many on the right are troubled by the rivers of red ink that have continued to flow despite Republican rule. "It's the ultimate goal of what we're trying to do," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "We want constitutional limits on the size of government."

But even as the Colorado measure galvanizes antispending groups elsewhere, it is dividing them at home, prompting a right-on-right fight that is luring outside combatants and drawing blood.

On one side is Gov. Bill Owens, the two-term Republican once promoted by National Review as a conservative of presidential timber. Arguing that the strict provision has forced a fiscal crisis, Mr. Owens is championing a ballot measure that would suspend the limit for five years, allowing the state to spend an additional $3.7 billion. Otherwise, he warns, the cap may be repealed.

On the other side are former allies who call the governor a tax-raising apostate discrediting the law he claims to protect. In addition to Mr. Norquist, they include the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and the former House majority leader, Dick Armey, a leader of an antitax group called FreedomWorks.
The stricter Colorado cap does three things: it imposes firm spending caps (which grow only to reflect population and inflation), returns any excess revenues to taxpayers and allows only voters, not legislators, to override the caps.

Both sides agree that the measure reined in the budget. The growth in per capita spending fell to 31 percent in the decade after the cap from 72 percent in the decade before, according to the Independence Institute, a Colorado group that favors it.

Supporters say the cap ignited the subsequent economic boom, with low taxes luring businesses. They also say it kept the state from overspending when flush only to face painful cuts later. "Tabor saved Colorado's fiscal fanny," said Jon Caldara, the institute's president.

But the Bell Policy Center in Denver, an opponent of the law, found sharp reductions in immunizations, mental health services and inspections of day care centers, along with an increase in substandard roads and uninsured children. The center also blamed the cap for reducing access to higher education. "We're taking away the opportunity for people to better their lives," said Wade Buchanan, the center's president.

The Bell Center was the Colorado grantee for the Working Poor Families Project, as the Center for an Urban Future was in New York. They released their report before we did, and much of it focused on the damage TABOR had wreaked on state policies in fields like education and childcare. A state of haves and have-nots, Colorado was at risk of pulling up many of its ladders to self-sufficiency.

I can't remember if the report named Grover Norquist as the intellectual godfather of TABOR, but I'm certainly not surprised that he's taken center stage in this debate. The fact that he's willing to sacrifice Bill Owens, a strong Republican presidential contender before this dustup, shows just how deep he and the activists have gotten. Again and again, when Republican ideologues make it into executive authority they find that the Norquistian solutions--ever-smaller taxation and ever-smaller government--lead to both bad policy and bad politics.

Norquist has never faced a voter, has never had to deal with the difficulties of balancing a budget much less meeting public demand for services in an increasingly complex world. He offers no solutions to the dilemmas that Owens, or Rick Perry in Texas, or Mitch Daniels in Indiana have to deal with--he just calls them names when they don't go his way.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. He does offer a solution: cut services. As he's said many times, Grover's whole goal is to shrink government to the size where one can "drown it in a bathtub". That's what TABOR has forced Colorado officials to do.

But while most voters dislike government in theory, they love it in practice. Much of the south and southwest--the seat of Republican electoral dominance these last 25 years--was built with public investment during the Cold War decades. And even most Republicans don't seem eager to dismantle the social safety net, much less de-fund public schools or do any of the other things on Norquist's wish list. Bill Owens, caught between the ideology and the demands of office, has backed away from

Supply-side dogma is a fundamentally unserious way to go about the public's business. But it makes good politics. Norquist is a great organizer and a great propagandist; it's to the deep misfortune of the country that he puts these skills to use in the service of ruinous ideas.  

And it could get worse:

Conservative frustration with government growth increased with President Bush's first term, which added more than $1 trillion to the national debt. Conservatives once talked of electing their own; they now talk of electing their own and tying their hands.

Stop us before we spend again? "Yes, that's really it," said Mr. Armey, who argues that the pressures to spend, reinforced by lobbyists and contributors, can overwhelm even the firmest conservatives.
Another major fight is under way in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed an antispending provision onto the fall ballot, albeit one seemingly less strict than that of Colorado.

In Maine, a veteran tax opponent, Mary Adams, is gathering signatures to put a spending cap on the ballot next year. And last year, the leader of the Wisconsin Senate, Mary Panzer, a moderate Republican, delayed convening a special session to consider a spending cap. That drew a primary challenge from a conservative rival, Glenn Grothman, who defeated her in what Mr. Norquist calls a watershed moment.

"It's one thing when policy analysts are supporting something," Mr. Norquist said. "It's another when it becomes the kind of thing politicians lose seats over."

Other states where advocates are pushing caps include Arizona, Kansas, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia... his opponents say a defeat for Mr. Owens will send a signal nationwide that voters like spending caps.

Colorado, of course, elected a Democratic Senator and gave the party majorities in both houses of the state legislature last year. While people might "like spending caps," they seem to prefer problem-solving to ideology. The Times article concludes by quoting Gov. Owens as saying, "Their job is to build memberships, keep the base active and convince members that the bad guys are always out to get them. In this case they're wrong." Sounds to me like a man who's more interested in political survival than playing nice with the pressure-group crowd.

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