Commentary: Is Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge losing its grip on GOP?

The Sacramento BeeSeptember 27, 2012 

MCT

Dan Morain is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

SCOTT LORENZO — MCT/Sacramento Bee

The question was simple enough. If California Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen could do it over again, would she have signed the pledge in which she promised to never vote to raise taxes?

She paused and thought and finally said she didn't know.

"The pledge has become subject to arbitrary and illogical interpretations," the Modesto Republican said.

Olsen is one of several California Republicans who openly question the wisdom of the 33-word pledge in which politicians vow to "oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."

Beltway conservative Grover Norquist promotes the pledge, using it to become a force in American politics and raise millions into his Americans for Tax Reform. Although the pledge plays well in Republican-dominated regions, cracks have developed in California.

Three of the four Republicans running in the most hotly contested state Senate races reject the pledge. No fewer than six Republicans who have legitimate shots at winning Assembly seats are non-signers. Five Republicans who could win congressional seats also reject it.

"I'm philosophically against abdicating my responsibility to someone else," said Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, a non-signing Republican who has a strong chance of winning his congressional race.

Perhaps rejecting the pledge suggests Republicans are facing reality. Clearly, the California GOP needs to try something new. The party teeters on insolvency, registration sits at 31 percent, and the political system has changed.

An independent commission, rather than politicians, drew legislative and congressional districts that are more balanced, and the top-two primary forces politicians to appeal to moderates.

In Sacramento, Democrats hardly bother negotiating with Republicans over the budget – the most important legislation each year – because Pledge Zombies cannot talk about taxes.

As always in politics, there's a money angle. Lobbyists are frustrated by the blank stares they get when the topic turns to budgets and taxation, and interest groups are using their checkbooks to make their views known.

The California Dental Association lobbies heavily for state funding for dental services. Worried that the state will cut spending deeper, the dentists led a $227,000 primary campaign to boost Republican Assembly candidate Frank Bigelow, a cowboy-hat-wearing Madera County supervisor who rejected the pledge.

Bigelow faces a November showdown for the Mother Lode seat against Rico Oller, a former legislator who embraces the pledge and holds "red meat rallies" at which he barbecues chunks of cattle for his supporters.

Marty Wilson, who oversees the California Chamber of Commerce political operation, said the chamber's top priority this year will be to elect Republican Assembly candidate Peter Tateishi, the former chief of staff to Rep. Dan Lungren.

Chamber support could translate into hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars, maybe more.

Tateishi, who is running in the district that includes Citrus Heights and Rancho Murieta, said he rejected the pledge not because he expects to raise money, but because he doesn't "believe in signing pledges."

He also wants to be "be at the table" during tax discussions, though in an interview he could think of only one tax he might have voted for, one that legislators approved last month that raised taxes on lumber sales and cut fees for California timber companies.

Olsen's doubts about the pledge came into focus on the final day of the legislative session when she voted for Senate Bill 1455, a bill to extend small fees on vehicle and boat registration and tire purchases to promote alternative fuel, reduce air pollution and fund the retrofit of older diesel engines.

On that night, Jon Fleischman, a conservative Orange County blogger and Norquist's enforcer in California, posted an item written in red type on his Flashreport in which he said Americans for Tax Reform was urging California legislators to vote against Senate Bill 1455.

Channeling Norquist, the Flashreport issued a not-so-subtle warning: "Moving forward, (Americans for Tax Reform) will be working to educate Californians as to how their representatives in Sacramento vote on this important matter."

Olsen shrugged. Business and industry groups, including oil and agriculture, backed the measure, which included provisions to help farmers in her San Joaquin Valley district.

She was one of three Assembly Republicans, independent Nathan Fletcher, and two Senate Republicans who voted for the measure.

"This was really important to my constituents," Olsen said. "They're the ones I'm accountable to, and no one else."

It was for naught when one Democrat voted against it and another Democrat ducked the vote. The bill died, but will re-emerge next year.

Taxes could be especially important in 2013, particularly if voters reject Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 to raise taxes by $6 billion a year.

Los Angeles investor Gerald Parsky, who has advised Republican presidents and governors, is leading the opposition to Proposition 30, arguing, correctly, that the mix of income and sales tax hikes in Proposition 30 is bad tax policy.

If Proposition 30 fails – and it barely led in the latest polls – Parsky promises to return to Sacramento with a plan to overhaul the tax system that would include some tax increases. Similar attempts, including one that Parsky championed, died ignominiously.

If Parsky follows through, Republican legislators could become relevant, at least those who, like Olsen, doubt the wisdom of pledging allegiance to a guy from Washington, D.C. Parsky, hardly a tax-and-spend liberal, called the Norquist pledge "counterproductive."

True, Republicans would be in the unfamiliar position of actually having sway in Sacramento. But they could learn. Who knows, maybe they could do some good for their districts and for the state.

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