Some lessons from California and Alabama

October 19, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

ARNOLD Schwarzenegger says he's going to "kick some serious butt" when he gets installed as California's new governor. He's going to audit the books, root out the waste and terminate the fraud.

It's such a tired promise repackaged. It's so destructive in the long run since it's the only message we get anymore from the bully pulpit of American politics. No one ever tries to say that government ever serves them and their families by strengthening the community.

It's destructive but, like all of negative campaigning, it doesn't go away because it seems to work -- politically. Government has such a bad image that people believe it incapable of performing any task with efficiency. Waste, fraud and abuse are government's only products. The connection between government and the greater good is fuzzy -- until, possibly, your house is flooded by a tropical storm and you need help.

Even after one is elected, the misleading mantras don`t end. In Maryland now, our leaders -- Republican and Democrat -- are promising to save us from taxes and casinos. This way to the free lunch.

They are, on the other hand, preparing to give us slot machines. And slot machines comprise some major piece of the casino action: 80 percent, it is said. So what is the real promise? They're going to save us from 20 percent of casinos -- for now. In time, we'll get the blackjack and the wheels because, what the hey, we've already got gambling haven't we?

And, friends, just count on this. We'll be needing the money. Some Democrats may be willing to raise taxes, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is not.

His mantra: No taxes. No way. No exceptions. OK, he says he might consider some minor increases, but he won't touch the sales or income tax and suggests he might want to roll back an increase reluctantly endorsed in the state property tax.

He made his promises during the campaign and, unlike Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama, he's unlikely to have a pro-tax epiphany.

The Alabama story, though, is worth a look. Mr. Riley, too, was a no-tax guy. A former congressman whose base, like Mr. Ehrlich's, is suburban never voted for a tax increase until he became governor.

Then, as one columnist put it, he became A) the most courageous governor in America or, B) the most suicidal or, C) both. His $1.2 billion tax structure overhaul failed 68 percent to 32 percent in a Sept. 9 referendum.

His proposal would have made Alabama's system fairer by starting income tax at $20,000 instead of $4,600, among other things. Taxes would have gone up across the board, but the increases would have fallen most heavily on those who could afford to pay. The voters said no.

The analysts said the proposal had been too complex. The governor had to explain his plan. The opponents simply said he wants to raise your taxes. You can't solve problems by throwing money at them, etc. We're a sucker for the sound bite, bumper sticker, butt-kicking rhetoric.

But there's another reason overhaul failed. To make the system fair after so many years of neglect, a complex overhaul was needed. It's no doubt true in many states. Maryland's budget experts say our taxes don't touch the most vital sectors of today's economy -- services, primarily. So if the national economy were to bolt toward robust recovery, we'd start to get well but not as quickly as if our tax system had been modernized.

Again, there's a further explanation: Governments, even progressive governments, tend to change incrementally. It's a good thing. Revolutions are hard to control. So we get improvements step by step.

When you're obliged, as Governor Riley thought he was, to adjust the big picture, you're vulnerable to many attacks -- and to the demagogues who will prey on the public's short attention span, not to mention its cynicism.

It'll be hard for Maryland or another state to change because we haven't changed enough incrementally over the years. We needed small doses of change, and we got some. Some, but not enough. Public officials have been unwilling, with few exceptions, to push for change in the tax structure. We're at a point now where we won't even conduct a study of that system.

"If our state is ever to move forward," said Caroline Novak, a leader of the pro-tax forces in Alabama, "our leaders must work to repair the breech of confidence that decades of cynicism has created."

It's a widening breech, and it won't be closed unless we find a few more Bob Rileys.

C. Fraser Smith is news director at WYPR-FM and his column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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