Calif. Republicans Keep Their No-New-Taxes Promise

By Don Thompson | February 19, 2009 | 5:30 PM EST
Sacramento, Calif. (AP) - Why did it take California lawmakers so long to pass a budget to close the state's $42 billion deficit? To find one reason, look about 3,000 miles east to an office in Washington.
In a campaign whose flames have been fanned by conservative bloggers and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist has been persuading lawmakers across the country to sign a pledge to vote against any and all tax increases.
"Serve and protect the state - not loot it," the president of Americans for Tax Reform said in an interview this week.
Norquist said one in six state lawmakers across the country has signed his Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Members of Congress, governors and attorneys general also have signed it.
In California, 40 of the 44 Republicans in the Legislature - and not one of the 75 Democrats - have signed on. And nearly every one of the GOP lawmakers refused to break their vow even as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican, warned of "financial Armaggedon" unless the two-year tax-raising budget was approved. He said that the deficit was so big it could not be closed with cuts alone and that those who thought so had "a big math problem."
The final spending plan to close California's shortfall through June 2010 includes $12.8 billion in higher sales, personal income and auto taxes.
"I'm not voting for the budget because I signed a tax pledge; I'm not voting for the bill because raising taxes will devastate our economy for all Californians," said state Sen. Tony Strickland of Thousand Oaks, one of those who kept their word.
Norquist called the final vote "a truly sad day for California taxpayers." He had no sympathy for the five Republicans who signed the pledge but then voted for higher taxes in the compromise plan.
"These people broke their word," he said.
Some Democratic lawmakers see the no-tax pledge taken by their counterparts as irresponsible and an obstacle to compromise.
"That signature clearly abrogates the legislative responsibility which voters entrusted to them," said Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco. "It's as stupid as my signing a pledge that I'll never make cuts."
As if to underscore that point, many of those who signed Norquist's pledge are finding they have to backpedal as the nation's recession deepens and they are left with few options to close gaping budget deficits.
In Kentucky, for example, 17 pledge-signers in the state General Assembly last week voted for new taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to help offset the state's $456 million shortfall.
Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater, a Republican, signed the pledge but said he expects tax increases, including a cigarette tax increase, to be part of the budget in his chamber. He argued that rebalancing the state's tax structure does not conflict with his tax philosophy, even if Florida receives more tax revenue as a result.
The pledge was not the only thing that stalled California's budget. The state's unusual requirement of a two-thirds majority to approve budgets and tax increases was the main obstacle. Also, GOP lawmakers never offered a plan to close the deficit solely with program cuts.
One of the California Republicans to go back on their word was Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, who cast the deciding vote for the budget early Thursday. He said he now fears for his political career.
"My friends, this might be the end for me," he said. But he added: "This ensures it's not the end for California."
Associated Press Writers Samantha Young in Sacramento, Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., and Joe Biesk in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this story.
Why did it take California lawmakers so long to pass a budget to close the state's $42 billion deficit? To find one reason, look about 3,000 miles east to an office in Washington.