By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
It is nearly axiomatic that a Republican who backs a tax increase is headed for a rough ride. Everyone remembers how President George Herbert Walker Bush, who won the White House in 1988 by making a strong anti-tax pledge to the American electorate, lost the confidence of the voters—and his bid for re-election—when he went back on his word. Nevertheless, the temptation to raise taxes, especially when political advisers come up with a way to spin them as "necessary," is sometimes too much to resist. Even in the current political environment.
The Obama recession left a lot of economic holes the stimulus package could not fill. This put more than a few governors of both parties in the position of finding ways to at least make them smaller—either by cutting spending or by drumming up new revenues. Some, like New Jersey's new Republican Gov. Chris Christie, chose to take a hard line on spending and to confront the public employee unions whose contracts have driven the state close to bankruptcy. Others, like Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, chose to make a "deal with the devil," sacrificing principle in the name of political and economic expediency.
In what some are calling "a late-night, behind-closed-doors deal," Herbert recently put his signature on legislation that increased the state's tobacco tax, provoking the ire of the Tea Party movement and putting the governor's re-election bid in jeopardy.
It's not that tobacco products are popular in Utah; they're not. It's the principle of the thing, as one local Tea Party leader told Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly. "This doesn't mean we are in favor of tobacco products," the Tea Party leader said. "Most of us are not. But it's the principle that has made this offensive."
According to Rolly, the Tea Party movement has been energized over the idea that one small group—smokers—has been targeted for a tax increase to the alleged benefit of everyone else just because the taxable good is, in the current environment, unpopular.
"If the money from this tax went for programs to help people quit smoking or deal with the effects of smoking—that would be one thing. But this money is going into the general fund," the Tea Party leader, who asked not to be identified by name, told Rolly.
He might also have added that, according to a number of studies going back many years, the tax is counterproductive. There are those who argue that raising taxes on tobacco is a good way to help people quit smoking because it makes cigarettes in particular too expensive. If this is true, and basic economics suggest that it is, then higher taxes mean fewer smokers. And fewer smokers mean state revenues from tobacco taxes go down, not up.
"He and his fellow 912ers see no difference between the tobacco tax and proposals in other states to tax bullets, soft drinks, and junk food. The opposition to all of that fits right in with the 'give-us-liberty' Patrick Henry movement that Republicans have so far adopted as their own," Rolly wrote before predicting electoral trouble on the horizon for Herbert because the Tea Party people are now thinking about throwing their support to Salt Lake County mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Corroon.
"We are taking a closer look at Corroon, because he has a pretty strong record of fiscal conservatism," the Tea Party leader said, pointing to the 20 percent reduction in Salt Lake County's budget and Corroon's opposition to his own party's tax increase proposals. The group is also impressed that Corroon stood against using taxpayer money to subsidize pro soccer in Sandy, while most Republican politicians supported it. "This doesn't mean we have decided to turn our backs on Herbert and support Corroon at this point," the source said. "It just means we think Corroon is worth looking at. We're not just automatic votes for the Republican."