Tax promises

Tom Wicker

December 13, 1991|By Tom Wicker

ANOTHER election year is just around the corner, so here's a piece of advice that candidates for dogcatcher or president would do well to observe: Be careful what you promise. It could come back to haunt you.

Remember George Bush in 1988, boldly telling the voters, "Read my lips"? There would be no tax increase while he was president. But taxes went up after two years, and the federal deficit never stopped rising.

Remember Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey, who as a Democratic candidate in 1989 said he saw no necessity for raising taxes? Once in office he saw the necessity, and put through tax increases totaling $2.8 billion.

Remember the New Jersey Republicans, who campaigned up and down the state this year against Florio's tax increase? They were so effective that they won big majorities in both houses of the legislature; now they face the hard truth -- their legislative majorities will have to make up that $2.8 billion with other taxes and spending cuts, or retain the taxes they campaigned against.

Remember those Connecticut legislators of both parties who promised repeal of a wage tax passed at the urging of independent Gov. Lowell Weicker? They, too, now confront the nasty question of what, if anything, to put in place of the wage tax. Other taxes? Or huge and unpalatable spending cuts? Even if they keep the tax on the books, Connecticut could find itself with a $770 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 1993.

In short, it's easy to make popular political promises in a campaign; but you may be sorry later, as George Bush and many another clever campaigner had to learn the hard way.

In Connecticut, for example, 40,000 or so citizens attended a recent rally to protest Weicker's unpopular wage tax; that got the legislature's attention. But when a repeal bill reached the House of Representatives, it contained a huge compensatory increase from 6 to 8.5 percent in the state sales tax. That wasn't what those 40,000 protesters had had in mind, and the repeal was approved only 86 to 63, far short of the two-thirds needed to overcome Weicker's probable veto.

New Jersey's Republicans are in an even more poignant bind. They don't take power until January, so the lame-duck Democrats still in control have hit upon the diabolical scheme of repealing their own tax package now -- just as the voters clearly demanded and the Republicans seemed to promise in November. If the Democratic plan succeeds, when the Republicans take over in January they will either have to reinstate the taxes they campaigned against, or provide a $2.8 billion facsimile, or cut the budget until it screams. Some estimates are that every state worker would have to be laid off to effect a reduction of that size.

The New Jersey business community, which also voiced strong opposition to the Florio tax increases, now opposes their repeal. Why? Business leaders not only know that, whatever they said in the past, the $2.8 billion is needed; they know, therefore, that if the present tax structure is overturned, it will inevitably have to be replaced -- and businesses may well be hit harder by new taxes than in the present system.

Some New Jersey voters believe that Florio knew even during his campaign that taxes would have to be raised. Whether he did or not, once he took office he was realistic enough to recognize the need; but his popular 1989 position therefore became a 1991 political liability.

Republican legislative leaders must have known as they campaigned this fall that the state needed the revenues from the taxes they denounced; now they plead piteously that they never really promised to repeal them all. This will surprise many who voted Republican in the belief that they were voting for repeal.

One lesson in these cases is as plain as red ink and big talk. Taxes are not always as evil and unnecessary and wasteful as today's political rhetoric would have voters believe; some taxes have to be levied if even the most basic public services are to be maintained. And if a state seeks to provide something better than basic services -- as most voters expect -- it may have to tax its citizens more heavily than they have recently, and unwisely, been taught to expect.

And that's another lesson: Political leaders don't serve their constituents well by denying or concealing unpleasant truths.

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