The Grover Norquist factor in our state politics

The king of the no-tax-increase pledge has strong support in Congress and with some key figures in the Washington Legislature. But Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob McKenna is not taking the pledge.

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Grover Norquist addressing the faithful in D.C.

The king of the no-tax-increase pledge has strong support in Congress and with some key figures in the Washington Legislature. But Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob McKenna is not taking the pledge.

Pledge fever has swept the nation.  Among Republicans running for national office, signing on to one of the innumerable pledges out there has become a prerequisite for party support.  There are pledges never to raise taxes, to “cut, cap, and balance,” to oppose gay marriage, to oppose abortion. The list goes on.

There is also some reaction against pledge fever. Jon Huntsman, Republican candidate for president and former governor of Utah, has questioned the proliferation of pledges, stating in a recent Republican presidential debate “I’d love to get everybody to sign a pledge to take no pledges.” An article in the New York Times examines how Republicans are starting to fear such pledges hamper their ability to be active in solving the nation's economic woes. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, one who has backed away from the pledge he signed in 2004, says, "There is pledge fatigue."

Attorney General Rob McKenna, seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has also resisted pledge fever, saying to Crosscut, "I have taken two pledges — one to my wife, and the other to uphold the constitution, and I think that’s enough.” His spokesman says McKenna hasn't signed any of the anti-tax pledges, and his statement would indicate he won't in the future.

One pledge in particular has dominated the political scene:  Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”  Norquist, who serves as president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), has been a Republican Party stalwart since the Reagan years.  His pledge, which is routinely circulated among Republican candidates for state and federal office, has now been signed by all but 13 Republican members of Congress.

Those who sign the pledge promise to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses” and to “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”  Norquist has a vice grip on the Republican Party.  As he has put it, “Take the pledge, win the primary. Take the pledge, win the general. Break the pledge, lose."

The Norquist pledge has gained national prominence. President Obama referenced it in his recent jobs speech when he referred to those who “have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live.” There is also a state-level oath that has gained less media attention. According to the ATR website, over 1,200 state legislators, 13 governors, and a handful of other state elected officials across the country have signed the state version of the “never raise taxes” pledge.  

In Washington state, ATR’s website indicates that four members of the state Senate and 13 members of the state House of Representatives have signed the pledge. On the list are some of the most powerful Republicans in the state legislature:  Sen. Joe Zarelli, ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee; Rep. Bill Hinkel, minority whip; Rep. Ed Orcutt, assistant ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee; and Rep. Jason Overstreet, assistant minority whip.

These members of the state’s Grover Norquist posse have put Washington state on record as having a greater percentage of signatories to the “no tax increase” pledge than Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. 

In our state, Grover Norquist can generally rely on the initiative king Tim Eyman to do his work for him.  Tim Eyman’s anti-tax crusade  has generally succeeded in turning “tax” and “revenue” into dirty words.  We’re now starting to see the effects of the subsequent “all cuts” approach to budget balancing, since taxes are virtually impossible for the Legislature to raise without a vote of the people (also unlikely).

Eyman’s latest effort, Initiative 1125, to be voted on next month, takes a page from the Norquist play book by prohibiting varied tolls or the possible collection of tolls on the I-90 bridge in order to pay for rehabilitation of the 520 bridge.  Norquist’s doctrine on user fees, such as tolls, is that user fees can’t be levied on one service to pay for another, but also that users of the service must have a choice that will enable them to avoid paying the fee.  In other words, imposing a user fee on the 520 bridge to pay for its replacement would be fine, as long as drivers could avoid paying the fee by traveling across I-90.

The 17 Republican signatories to the Norquist pledge in the Washington state legislature apparently don’t think Norquist’s grip on our state’s tax policy is strong enough.  Despite passage of initiatives requiring a supermajority of 60 percent to raise taxes in a closely divided state legislature, these legislators have signed the oath to oppose “any and all efforts to raise taxes” as long as they hold office.  As we’ve seen in the recent stand-off over the continuation of FEMA funding at the federal level, there are no exceptions made to this pledge — not earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, public health crises, terrorist attacks, or any other type of emergency.  In the event of such emergencies, the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the ATR website requires that funding for emergency response come from cuts to other state programs.

Such pledges began in the 1972 governor's race in tax-averse New Hampshire. ATR's stated policy is to keep expanding the idea, distributing it to all candidates for state office. That leads to a big question in Washington state: Will the Republican’s best shot at the governorship in 30 years, current Attorney General Rob McKenna, face this as an issue?

McKenna has a delicate line to walk here. He didn’t fare particularly well among the party faithful when it came to selecting the Republican state party chair.  Earlier this year, McKenna publicly came out in support of longtime ally Luke Esser for the position. State party leaders, however, selected Kirby Wilbur, the former conservative radio talk show host. And the state GOP has angered many business supporters by endorsing Eyman's anti-toll and anti-Sound Transit I-1125.

Signing the “no tax increase as long as I live” pledge has become a requirement for Tea Party support, at least at the federal level.  Shoring up support among the Tea Party in the state could be crucial to get-out-the-vote efforts.  McKenna's refusal to sign such a pledge is an indication that he has his eye firmly on the independents and moderate Democrats he needs to get elected, voters who would be offended by a candidate aligning with the bitter partisanship of the controversial Norquist. 


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