Read My Balance Sheet

Posted Jan. 15, 2010, at 6:55 p.m.

As a campaign tactic, the “no new taxes” pledge has a checkered past. George H.W. Bush used it at the GOP convention in 1988, attached to the now-infamous “read my lips” phrase. Many said that when Mr. Bush later raised taxes to cover the huge deficits created in his predecessor’s budgets, he was doomed to be a one-term president.

As Maine’s gubernatorial race ramps up, four Republican candidates — Matt Jacobson, Paul LePage, Les Otten and Bruce Poliquin — have taken the pledge to not increase taxes. Specifically, they pledge to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

Stirring stuff, guaranteed to please voters of all stripes. After all, who wants higher or new taxes? But such promises pander to the electorate. The candidates, like the first President Bush, may find themselves having to renege on the pledge if they are elected.

When the economy contracted and state revenues dried up, Gov. John Baldacci pledged not to raise taxes, and has largely kept that promise. There have been times in the last three years, as budget gaps loom larger and the slashing goes deeper, that it seemed the governor was being shortsighted in his refusal to consider, say, a temporary 1-cent hike in the sales tax. Republican Gov. John McKernan was able to bridge a budget gap with such a fix, and the sales tax was returned to 5 percent when the recession ended.

And Gov. Baldacci’s refusal to raise taxes has often resulted in higher local property taxes. The next round of state spending cuts will mean reduced revenue to municipalities and state aid to K-12 education. The property tax, as the last rung on the ladder, will catch the weight.

State government should not take the easy way out and raise taxes. Any increase should be a last resort. But as the economy is poised to grow again, state government will be in a precarious position. Some targeted new spending in infrastructure, business tax credits, research and development and other areas might actually accelerate the recovery.

The gubernatorial candidates would do better to point to specific areas of state government they would curtail or eliminate. They might advocate raising the income level for poverty assistance eligibility, eliminating certain business tax breaks or folding some departments into others. Doing so takes more political courage because the victims of any cuts will cry foul.

A realistic hope for fiscal conservatives in this year’s gubernatorial election is that the state budget is at or near the bottom of a multiyear spending curve. The next governor has the opportunity to be a gatekeeper, blocking any well-intentioned initiatives that would rebuild the state’s now sparsely furnished bureaucracy — even when revenues on existing taxes support such growth. Rather than their willingness to make a simple pledge, the gubernatorial candidates should be assessed on the mettle they bring in being able to say no government expansion. And that mettle may have to be summoned to persuade Mainers that a new tax is needed.

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