SPRINGFIELD, Ill — If you want to raise taxes…vote Republican.
At least in Illinois you do. That frank advice was recently delivered by Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, at a Chicago forum on school funding. Lawrence, responding to a question about school funding reform (Illinois’ euphemism for tax hikes), answered the query about how to raise taxes by stating, “I think we need to start out by electing a moderate Republican as governor.” He then reminded us, after all, that it was a Republican governor, Richard Ogilvie, who instituted the income tax in 1969 and that “All income tax increases in Illinois have occurred under Republican governors.”
Lawrence’s statements supporting higher taxes are important because Mike Lawrence is a former press secretary, friend, and advisor to former Illinois Republican governor Jim Edgar. Edgar is currently being courted by Illinois Republican leaders to run against incumbent Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2006. The match-up, if it comes to pass, could very well be between a pro-tax Republican and a Democrat who kept a pledge to not hike general income and sales taxes.
Puzzling, isn’t it? Since the Reagan Revolution swept the nation in the 1980s Republicans have evolved into an anti-tax pro-economic growth party. It has proven successful both economically and politically. One would think that a strategy this successful would catch on. Yet, in Illinois it not only hasn’t caught on; it’s been rejected.
Edgar places his own odds at running at 50-50 and many Republican Leaders openly wish he would hurry up and make a decision. Let’s hope Edgar takes a pass.
Edgar’s popularity, or at least voters’ nostalgia for the 1990s, places him well ahead of the sitting governor by double-digit margins. Blagojevich’s being the second governor in a row named “Public Official A” in a federal plea bargain doesn’t hurt Edgar’s chances either. All of this makes it tempting for Republican leaders in a state party reeling from multiple disasters to reach back to happier days for a standard bearer.
What Republican leaders fail to recognize, however, is that the problem in Illinois has been the lack of ideas, not personalities. Reaching back to a governor who disdained the grassroots for patronage and chose big government over taxpayers is not the answer to what ails the broader Republican coalition in Illinois.
Illinois Republican Party leaders never cared for the Reaganite vision that married economic and social conservatives into what has become a grand coalition of those seeking to be left alone by government. Instead of using political power to grow the grass roots on issues such as taxes, guns, and life these leaders relied on the Democrats’ 19th century patronage model of governance. The defining difference between the parties has been one of running a $6 billion per year Medicaid program versus a $5.8 billion per year Medicaid program. In other words…not much.
Republican Governor Jim Thompson is either credited or despised for killing off Illinois’ conservative grass roots movement in the ’80s. And what Thompson killed Edgar buried by institutionalizing the idea that the state party would be organized around the personage of the governor and patronage. The system worked for 30 years, up until Republicans were kicked out of every important office in 2002 for widespread corruption.
As Reaganites have made Republicans the majority party at the national level, Illinois’ tax-and-spend Republicans have made their party a minority. The juxtaposition is startling. Just as the Illinois Republicans’ philosophy diverged from the national party’s so too have Illinois Republican’s fortunes.
WHY ARE ILLINOIS REPUBLICANS the go-to guys on higher taxes? The Edgar adviser stated that historically Democrats have feared voter reprisals for raising taxes and thus refused to do so without Republican cover. Enough Republicans have always emerged to give the cover needed. Ogilvie instituted the income tax; Thompson temporarily increased it; and Edgar made the increase permanent.
In his 1994 re-election, Edgar ran against a proposed property tax reduction in exchange for income and sales tax hikes only to flip-flop and eventually support the tax hike. Then there was Governor George Ryan, who raised taxes on just about everything else for “infrastructure spending.”
None of this has been lost on Governor Blagojevich, who has seen what being on the wrong side of the tax issue has done to Democrats nationally. While running for Governor in 2002 he vowed to not raise general and income sales taxes, and throughout his first term he has kept that promise.
Instead, Blagojevich has raised hundreds of millions in business taxes and fees; diverted special fund fees to the general revenue fund; raided the state’s pension funds; and has borrowed money with abandon. He has increased spending by about a $1 billion per year since his election. Despite the predictable drag on the Illinois economy the state is improving in absolute terms, ironically, thanks to President Bush’s Reaganite tax cuts.
While Blagojevich’s re-elect numbers are currently low, he has $14 million to remind voters that their situation is improving and the other guy wants to hike taxes. A rising economic tide and a kept pledge, albeit riddled with loopholes, not to raise taxes allows Blagojevich to run right of Edgar.
In fact, Blagojevich’s campaign has already attacked Edgar’s right flank. In a widely reported column in the political newsletter, “CapitolFax,” spokesman Peter Giangreco offered a devastating critique of Edgar. He pointed out that Edgar took the largest tax increase in Illinois history, made it permanent, and asked working people to sacrifice rather than reduce spending. “By contrast,” stated Giangreco, “Rod Blagojevich said he wouldn’t raise the income or sales tax, and despite inheriting a budget deficit from George Ryan that was 13 times worse than what Edgar faced, he kept his word.”
Republicans pining for Edgar believe that Edgar’s “good government” credentials will be enough to defeat Blagojevich. After all, the Chicago Democrat is plagued by corruption; has alienated swing areas of the state; and is a lightweight who governs by press release.
While this makes Blagojevich vulnerable, it doesn’t guarantee victory. Jim Edgar’s tax record; the Republican establishment’s own scandals (former Republican Governor George Ryan goes on trial this week); and the alienation of the base that Edgar would exacerbate are hardly a recipe for victory, either.
Announced candidates businessman Jim Oberweis, State Senators Bill Brady and Steve Rauschenberger are all talking tax cuts and limited but effective government — things that motivate the base. These three have the ability to revitalize the wider Republican coalition of conservative grass roots activists as well as traditional rank-and-file party members. By making any primary against Edgar a referendum on the Republican’s pro-tax stance, they have an opportunity — win or lose in the general election — to save the Republican Party from itself and finally make it into the successful party of Reagan.
Jim Edgar, on the other hand, is a step backward to when government grew automatically and taxes always rose. Illinois Republicans now have an opportunity to reject this statist history once and for all.
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