Taxpayer Group Sees Promise in State Governors
Although California lawmakers would not themselves approve Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s economic recovery proposal, they have agreed to allow Schwarzenegger to present the plan to the state’s voters. On December 12, the state senate approved, and Schwarzenegger signed, legislation placing the recovery measure on the March 2004 ballot.
“As he said he would do, he will go over the heads of the legislature and put a spending limit on the November ballot next year,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman. According to Americans for Tax Reform, that assertiveness on behalf of taxpayers puts Schwarzenegger in line for top honors as a “#1-ranked governor.”
“By taking his stand on November 25, 2003, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proved by example that governors can resolve their states’ spending shortfalls without raising taxes,” said ATR President Grover Norquist. Schwarzenegger outlined a three-part plan in Sacramento that day, including efforts to cut spending, issue $15 billion in bonds, and limit future spending to the rate of inflation and population increase.
“The governor of California has provided a useful example of things a governor can do to earn ideal ratings from Americans for Tax Reform,” continued Norquist. ATR issues continuously updated rankings of governors based on their taxing and spending activities.
“Governors who earned a ranking of #2 or #3 from us could cut spending now--and then follow up with a useful amendment to curb future spending in meaningful ways, like Schwarzenegger has done, without raising taxes,” Norquist said.
Georgia Governor Lauded
Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia offers another example for governors hoping to boost their ATR ranking. Perdue--an ATR #2-ranked governor who worked to raise taxes during the 2003 legislative session--pledged on December 4, 2003 to oppose all tax increases in the 2004 session.
“We’re not raising taxes,” Perdue said. “I want you all to know I’m a pretty fair wing shot. Every time a tax clay pigeon is floated, I’ll be taking aim at it.”
“ATR applauds Governor Perdue for his promise to oppose tax increases this session,” commented Norquist. “Making promises like Governor Perdue’s--and keeping those promises--is an excellent way to earn a Gold Star award.”
ATR ranks governors on a scale of 1 (best) to 3 (worst). Those who have worked to pass budgets without tax increases earn a rank of 1. Signing a budget that includes tax increases earns a governor a rank of 2, and actively working to pass and sign tax increases earns a rank of 3.
Number 1-ranked governors also are considered for Gold Star status, which recognizes their additional, proactive efforts to implement policies that benefit taxpayers, such as cutting taxes and spending.
“We don’t exactly wipe the slate clean on January 1, but we continuously revisit the governors’ rankings. If a governor executes pro-taxpayer policies, we’re likely to revise his or her ranking upwards,” Norquist noted.
ATR’s 2003 Gold Star governors were
- Bill Owens (R-Colorado)
- Jeb Bush (R-Florida)
- Linda Lingle (R-Hawaii)
- Tim Pawlenty (R-Minnesota)
- Craig Benson (R-New Hampshire)
- Don Carcieri (R-Rhode Island)
- Phil Bredeson (D-Tennessee)
- Rick Perry (R-Texas)
The additional top-ranked governors were
- Frank O’Bannon (D-Indiana), who died in September 2003
- Mike Foster (R-Louisiana)
- John Baldacci (D-Maine)
- Mitt Romney (R-Massachusetts)
- Ronnie Musgrove (D-Mississippi)
- Brad Henry (D-Oklahoma)
- James Douglas (R-Vermont)
- Dave Freudenthal (D-Wyoming)
Several governors are currently ranked #2 by ATR, indicating the group has observed some activity by these governors that works to the detriment of taxpayers. The group’s #2-ranked governors are:
- Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska)
- Rod Blagojevich (D-Illinois)
- Bob Ehrlich (R-Maryland)
- Jennifer Granholm (D-Michigan)
- Mike Johanns (R-Nebraska)
- Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico)
- Mike Easley (D-North Carolina)
- John Hoeven (R-North Dakota)
- Gary Locke (D-Washington)
- Bob Wise (D-West Virginia)
- Jim Doyle (D-Wisconsin)
ATR officials say they are “keeping an eye on” those governors and hope their 2004 efforts will warrant promotion.
Don’t Follow Their Example
In 2003, the governors earned a rank of #2 or worse by working to delay a scheduled tax cut, imposing fee increases that are “tax increases in disguise,” and signing or supporting simultaneous tax cut and tax increase legislation that was not revenue-neutral.
“ATR has long defended taxpayers against lawmakers who would increase their taxes in devious ways,” commented Norquist. “Sometimes these policies look good at face value, but the fiscal note is not always so rosy.”
Governors in Kansas, Michigan, and New Mexico worked to delay scheduled tax cuts their legislatures had passed in previous sessions and taxpayers expected to see phased in. In Michigan, for example, Democrat Jennifer Granholm was among ATR’s #2-ranked governors until she advocated delaying a proposed income tax cut scheduled for January 1, 2004.
“Delaying a scheduled tax cut is a tax increase,” commented Norquist. “Even if the legislature rejects the governor’s proposed increase, her rank will fall to #3 until she redeems herself.”
In a joint press release issued through their House Taxpayer Protection Caucus, Michigan Representatives Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Township) and Jacob Hoogendyk Jr. (R-Portage) said their caucus and other pro-taxpayer legislators also oppose the delay.
“The government spent its way into this problem and government should cut its way out,” said Drolet. “Michigan families didn’t create this deficit and they should not be paying the bill for it.”
Similarly, in the wee hours of the morning in late April when the Kansas legislature passed its budget, lawmakers worked to delay a scheduled sales tax cut of 0.1 percent. Democrat Governor Kathleen Sebelius denied the delay was a tax increase, and called the action “a responsible choice.”
“The responsible thing to do is to keep your promises and cut taxes when you say you will,” countered Norquist.
In New Mexico, Democrat Governor Bill Richardson signed a 70 cents-per- pack cigarette tax increase and legislation to stop gas taxes from falling by 1 cent per gallon.
“Governor Richardson made some encouraging noises about cutting personal income taxes and capital gains taxes earlier this year, but the cigarette tax increase and the gas tax cut delay effectively downgraded his ranking,” Norquist said.
Passing “user fees” that are really tax increases is another ploy that will earn a governor a lower ranking. Illinois Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich proposed increasing more than 100 taxes and fees earlier this year. Democrat Governor Bob Wise of West Virginia increased cigarette taxes, calling them a “user fee.” Their rankings were downgraded by ATR.
Other actions that typically result in a lower ATR ranking include simultaneous tax cuts and tax increases, where the tax increase is larger overall than the tax cut.
“Tax cuts must be greater than or equal to tax increases, and lawmakers must pass both types of legislation simultaneously. Otherwise, it’s a tax increase,” Norquist said.
How Governors Can Improve Their Ranking
“First and foremost, governors can sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and keep that promise to taxpayers that they will oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes,” said Norquist.
ATR offers the pledge to all candidates for state and federal elective office, including candidates for governor. An incumbent governor may sign the pledge at any time. Copies of the pledge are available on ATR’s Web site, http://www.atr.org.
Eight governors have signed the pledge, including two governors currently ranked #2 by ATR.
“Vetoing and opposing efforts to increase taxes, opposing plans like Maine Rx to impose price controls on prescription drugs, signing the pledge, and spearheading efforts to repeal existing tax increases all will help improve a governor’s ranking,” commented Norquist.
“I particularly appreciate Ohio’s Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell working to repeal Governor [Bob] Taft’s $2.9 billion tax increase,” Norquist said. “I wish Blackwell were governor; he would earn a rank of #1 and probably a Gold Star.
“Governing is not a free ride, and ATR watches the action of governors vigilantly. That said, we’re happy to offer state-specific ways to earn a high rank. All a governor has to do is ask us,” concluded Norquist.
Emily Sedgwick is staff writer for Americans for Tax Reform. Her email address is email@example.com.