Anti-tax pledge directs budget debates nationwide

By Juliet Williams

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In the Feb. 19, 2010 file photo, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist jokes around as he is introduced prior to addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. As lawmakers across the country grapple with how to address massive budget deficits, Norquist is leaving his fingerprint on legislatures across the country with an anti-tax pledged embraced by conservatives and reviled by liberals and some moderates.

Cliff Owen, file, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The governor of Wisconsin has signed it. So have most of the Republicans in California's Legislature.

As state lawmakers grapple with how to address massive budget deficits, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is leaving his fingerprints on legislatures across the country. His pledge against taxes is embraced by conservatives and reviled by liberals and some moderates.

In states as varied as Georgia, Arizona and California, Norquist has intervened at critical times to issue a warning or offer his critical stamp of approval to Republican lawmakers.

To many conservatives, signing the anti-tax pledge has become a badge of honor. To others, it's a shield that gives Republican lawmakers an easy out from working toward compromise or making difficult decisions about tax increases or reforms.

Norquist is president of the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans for Tax Reform and has become a flashpoint in the debate over how best to address states' budget deficits, whether he likes it or not.

"I'm not a player in this," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The promise they made is to the citizens ... specifically their district. So if a Democrat legislator says that I or Americans for Tax Reform are stopping any tax increase, they're lying."

His pledge is simple, but powerful. Lawmakers who sign it promise to "oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."

More than 1,200 Republicans nationwide have signed it. In California, those Republicans say it's a symbol of their commitment to spend the people's money wisely.

But to Democrats and those who opt not to sign, the promise gets in the way of the vigorous debate and compromise that are at the heart of democracy.

This year alone, Norquist's group has weighed in on legislation in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia and Nevada, while praising Michigan's governor for a budget plan that would cut taxes. Norquist called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has sought to end most aspects of collective bargaining for public employee unions — "the next Chris Christie" — a reference to the New Jersey governor and rising GOP star.

In California, where lawmakers are grappling with a $26.6 billion deficit, Norquist's pledge has become a lightning rod, with Democrats accusing GOP lawmakers of caring more about a pledge from an outside group than their own state.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, wants the Legislature to call a special election for June and place a measure on the ballot asking Californians to extend temporary increases enacted two years ago on the income, sales and vehicle taxes. Those increases are scheduled to expire this year. If voters approve, they would remain in effect for another five years, bringing more than $9 billion a year to the state's treasury.

Brown also has called for more than $12 billion in spending cuts to higher education, welfare programs, health services for the poor, in-home care, state parks and a wide array of other programs.

A two-thirds vote is required in California's Legislature to pass tax and fee increases, or to place measures on the ballot. This year, that means two Republicans each in the Assembly and Senate are needed to place Brown's budget plan before voters.

The governor joked during a recent budget hearing that as a former Jesuit who studied to be a priest, he was able to get out of his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — so he might be able to arrange absolution for Republicans who want out of their tax pledge. Brown reminded lawmakers that he is not asking for a tax increase directly. Rather, he wants them to put the question to voters so they can decide.

"This doesn't violate any no-tax pledge," he told lawmakers. "It's really a total misrepresentation to say that it is a tax increase to allow the people of California to vote on something so fundamental as their education, public safety and the other matters."

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