The taxpayer advocacy organization Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) has begun a “Least Wanted” campaign intended to warn every Republican state legislator in the nation against raising taxes.
ATR’s Least Wanted poster features the names and faces of 34 Republican state legislators in Virginia, who last year joined Democrats to pass the largest tax increase in the state’s history. ATR has sent copies of the poster to Republican lawmakers in all states, making it clear they could be similarly targeted.
In total, 60,000 copies of the poster have been e-mailed to legislators, taxpayer advocacy groups, and individuals, according to ATR President Grover Norquist.
“We had several audiences for Least Wanted,” said Norquist. “First were the Virginia legislators, letting them know the world knew how they voted. Another audience is the taxpayers of Virginia. The third audience is Republican state legislators across the country. Our goal is to dissuade weak-kneed Republican legislators from caving to those who want to raise taxes, to let them know there are costs, that this will be noticed and remembered.”
Taxers Fighting Back
Republicans pictured on the poster have fought back through the news media.
“What you have there [at ATR] are a group of reactionaries masquerading as conservatives who are out to destroy the Republican Party,” Virginia’s House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) told Washington Post reporter Michael Shear, as reported in the paper’s September 15 edition. ATR launched the campaign in September but only recently took it national.
State Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) told Shear that Norquist “thrives on divisiveness and fear.” He added, “shrill divisiveness is not constructive.”
Virginia’s estimated $1.38 billion tax increase, approved in 2004 for the current budget year, was proposed by Governor Mark Warner (D) and supported by virtually all Democrat members of the Virginia Assembly and the 34 Republicans, including 19 delegates and 15 senators.
The increase features hikes in state sales, cigarette, and real-estate taxes. ATR and the Virginia Club for Growth argue the tax increase package was unnecessary. Virginia’s official budget Web site shows a state spending increase of 13.3 percent this year. Without the new revenues from the tax increase, state spending would still have increased 10.6 percent.
Warner argued a tax hike was necessary for the state to maintain its AAA bond rating. Norquist said taxes were hiked simply to fund the surge of spending.
“With the newly adopted budget, state spending during Warner’s term will increase by 26 percent [FY2002 to FY2006],” said Norquist. “From 1998 to 2006, state spending will have increased by a runaway 70 percent.” Warner took office in January 2002; his predecessor, James Gilmore (R), was governor from 1998 until 2002.
Governor Still Popular
Despite the tax and spending increases, Warner apparently remains popular with Virginia voters. A poll taken after the tax hike was approved showed 58 percent of Virginians giving Warner a “good” or “excellent” job rating. The poll is a quarterly public opinion survey of Virginia residents conducted by the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Some news organizations also have defended the tax hike. In response to Norquist’s complaints, the News Leader in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley wrote on September 23, “Most people are intelligent enough to know that governments, whether they’re federal, state, or local, run on money, not magic beans, not promises of growth, not surpluses. They are aware that this money comes from taxes paid by citizens that are necessary in order to fund the infrastructure and services people have come to expect as part of a decent quality of life. Good schools, efficient, well-equipped police forces, responsive fire and rescue teams, and a host of other things–some vital, others less so–aren’t free.”
Other commentators have been less supportive. In a December 15 column for the Roanoke Times, Ed Lynch, associate professor of political science at Hollins University in Roanoke, used the terms “trumped up” and “fraudulent” to describe Warner’s arguments for the tax hikes.
Still, Lynch argued in his column that Norquist and the Virginia Club for Growth would do better to concentrate on defeating Democrats, who voted in lockstep with Warner, than on defeating Republicans who sided with him.
In a followup interview with Budget & Tax News, Lynch said he believes the Least Wanted campaign, at least in the Roanoke area, has had minimal effect on voter attitudes.
“They may be going for Northern Virginia, where there is more national media, and they can get more mileage for the campaign,” he said. “No matter where they go, though, it’s going to be tough. In Virginia, incumbents get to challenge the method of their renomination. If you think you might have an intra-party challenge, you go for a primary. Any of those targeted delegates would go for a primary. If a challenger has not already started hitting the hustings, he’s way behind.”
Some Mending Fences
Virginia also does not have party registration, “so Republicans can unabashedly appeal for Democrat votes and base a primary victory on them,” Lynch said.
Even with these advantages, many of the targeted Republicans have been trying to mend fences, according to Lynch.
“There’s an effort to emphasize that the tax increase was part of a larger agreement, which has an increase in the personal exemption and other good things,” he said. “They are certainly conscious of the fact that a lot of their Republican friends were upset with their vote.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget and Tax News.