Grover Norquist’s No-Tax-Increase Pledgers Are Insane

Tom Corbett gets caught in a trap: Impose taxes or let a Pennsylvania bridge collapse?

Pity the politicians who woo fickle anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, architect of the famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which commits its executive signees to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

Why just last month, Norquist was talking up Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett as a VP candidate, or even a potential presidential contender in 2016 or 2020. Then, all of a sudden, Norquist was suggesting Corbett had gone soft on taxes, citing the governor’s proposed fee on Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction.

In a rational world, Norquist’s complaints wouldn’t bother much of anyone, not when a large majority of Pennsylvanians favor an industry tax on fracking. But in today’s Republican Party, what Grover Norquist thinks matters very much indeed. Of the 244 GOP members in the U.S. House of Representatives, 238 have signed Norquist’s pledge. So have 41 of the 48 GOP Senators. (Only three Dems have signed on in both chambers combined.)

Given the budget woes that extend from the smallest townships to the federal government, signing any pledge that commits oneself to blanket opposition to any tax hike seems like madness, and I write that as someone who wholeheartedly endorses cuts to entitlement programs as part of a broader plan to restrain the national deficit.

But Norquist’s pledge makes even less sense at the state and municipal level, where governments are typically forbidden by their charters and constitutions from running deficits. Consider Corbett’s conundrum on the state’s desperate need for investment in its transportation infrastructure. The governor’s own transportation commission reported in August that there were 5,205 structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania, and 40,000 miles of state highways in poor condition. It called for $2.5 billion in investment.

So what happened? Nothing. Why not? Well Corbett’s commission recommended paying for the transportation investment by raising the franchise tax on oil companies, and by increasing fines and fees on drivers and vehicles.

So Corbett punted, and declared that tranportation funding was no longer a top priority. One can only wonder if the governor asked himself WWND: What would Norquist do?

To his credit, Corbett has not yet backed off his (awfully limited) Marcellus Shale fee proposal, despite Norquist’s criticism. He’s got to be frustrated, though. Here he crafts a proposal that bends over backwards to present itself as a fee, not a tax, and still Norquist slaps him on the wrist.

I have no doubt that Corbett shares Norquist’s distaste for tax hikes. But by signing that pledge, Corbett has put himself into a straitjacket, one that is going to feel increasingly snug as the governor’s first term wears on.

Corbett prides himself on being the kind of guy who makes his own decisions after carefully weighing the evidence on a case-by-case basis. But if that’s really true, why would he have preemptively decided there’s no basis for tax hikes, ever? So what do you say, governor? Why not ditch the pledge, and leave all options available? If only on the off chance that, occasionally, it turns out that a tax hike actually is what’s in the best interest of Pennsylvania.