- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

More than half of the nation’s 28 Republican governors either have increased taxes or attempted to raise them, yet voter unhappiness with such moves could help President Bush’s re-election, political analysts say.

Faced with rising state expenditures, several conservative Republican governors opted to raise taxes rather than slash spending that they say could undermine essential public services.

“Pure conservatism means lean and responsible government, not mean and irresponsible government,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who reluctantly raised taxes to pay for increases in government spending.

After first cutting taxes and spending, Mr. Huckabee eventually found that his state’s spending obligations were rising for education, prisons and health care, the three items that make up 90 percent of Arkansas’ general budget. He says this prompted him to raise taxes.

Arkansas is under a Supreme Court order to spend more on education, Mr. Huckabee says, and Medicare and Medicaid are federal entitlement programs that must be given to any qualified person who asks.

As for increasing costs for prisons, the governor doesn’t get to choose how many inmates to accommodate — the prosecutors and courts do that.

But some conservative analysts such as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, have criticized Mr. Huckabee and other Republican governors, saying they are ignoring alternatives such as scaling back spending.

Mr. Huckabee disagreed.

“What do our critics want — to rip the feeding tubes out of an 8-year-old or an elderly person on Medicaid?” he said.

“Grover needs to run for governor somewhere, win and then try to govern,” Mr. Huckabee added. “He makes it sound so easy.”

Mr. Norquist retorted: “He should make a phone call to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who closed a $10 billion deficit without tax hikes, or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty who closed a $4.2 billion deficit without tax hikes. It isn’t easy. It is called governing.”

As a tax-boosting Republican governor, Mr. Huckabee has lots of company.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft’s tax-increase package, for example, will cost taxpayers about $2.9 billion over two years. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn pushed through an $836 million tax increase. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue also raised taxes.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a conservative, tried but failed to increase taxes to close a budget deficit.

Many of the governors say that fiscal responsibility and a commitment to maintain adequate spending on popular programs such as education and health care made their decisions to increase taxes necessary.

“What did they want me to do — not put teachers in our new schools?” Mr. Guinn said of critics who wanted him to cut spending.

But conservative analysts say such tax increases actually might help Mr. Bush’s re-election efforts next year. They say the president, who made tax relief a centerpiece of his administration, has an opportunity to tap into voter frustration by supporting tax-repeal initiatives on the ballot. Petition drives in several states call for repeal of tax increases.

Ohio Secretary of State and fellow Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell are leading a petition drive to bring repeal of Mr. Taft’s tax-increase package before the legislature and, if necessary, put it on the ballot next November.

“It will help the president in Ohio because a tax recall is on the ballot and will bring out voters who will also vote for Bush,” Mr. Norquist said.

Mr. Bush won Ohio by a narrow margin in the 2000 election.

Bruce Bartlett, a senor fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, agreed with Mr. Norquist that such tax-repeal moves may help Mr. Bush. “And there may be more states with tax repeals on the ballot by next November,” Mr. Bartlett said.

Petition drives are under way in Nevada to place on the ballot the repeal of some of Mr. Guinn’s large tax boost.

Although headed by Democratic governors, Washington and Oregon also will have tax-cut initiatives or repeals on their ballots. Mr. Bush lost both states in 2000.

Other Republican governors have resisted efforts to increase taxes.

In New York, the legislature raised taxes over the veto of Gov. George E. Pataki. Earlier this year, Mr. Pataki repeated his vow to avoid “job-killing” tax increases.

In Massachusetts and Nebraska, the legislatures passed tax increases over the vetoes of Gov. Mitt Romney and Gov. Mike Johanns.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in his first year in office fulfilled promises to reduce government and avoid tax increases to close a deficit, but Democrats defeated his attempt to legalize slot-machine gambling.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a socially liberal Republican, stood fast against the Democratic legislature’s efforts to raise taxes. Instead, she reduced spending and proposed to cut taxes.

About a third of the nation’s Republican governors signed Mr. Norquist’s no-tax pledge.

“The first governor to go south on us was [Idaho Gov. Dirk] Kempthorne, but to be fair, his tax increase sunsets after two years,” Mr. Norquist said. “A temporary tax increase is a little better than a permanent one — but not much.”

He said there will be a price to be paid by those governors who boosted taxes.

Michael O. Leavitt, governor of Utah until his appointment by Mr. Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency, raised taxes and could not have been re-elected because of that and his opposition to school choice, Mr. Norquist said.

Nor are tax increases permanent. In the 24 states that permit referendums on their ballots, no tax increase is safe.

“Most of the Ohio tax increase will be rolled back on the ballot in 2004,” Mr. Norquist predicted.

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