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November 30, 2015

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jon ralston:

‘No new taxes’ has no new meaning

It’s only the second week of Session ’11 and the tax non-debate has set a high bar of inanity to hurdle.

Amid the Democratic mutes and administration deniers, we have the silliness of two rookie GOP senators, one (Michael Roberson) revealing repressed childhood memories of miners raping his birthplace and another (Elizabeth Halseth) whining of being ignored by the industry, leading to the easily escapable conclusion by the Fourth Estate that miners will finally pay their due.

But this is all a sideshow, albeit a familiar one, as the Gang of 63 and the governor avoid any substantive “open and honest debate” over the budget crisis by hewing to familiar positions (Brian Sandoval playing Jim Gibbons) or articulating problems without offering any solutions (Democratic legislative leaders playing most Democratic legislative leaders across the years).

It’s the politics, stupid, not the policy, and if you don’t know who they are calling stupid, folks, look in the mirror.

I am bemused, however, about how the tempest over a bill to curb mining’s eminent domain powers, leading inevitably to a “tax the industry” discussion, has illuminated the intellectual dishonesty of the “no new taxes” crowd.

Roberson signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, which Citizen Outreach boss Chuck Muth pummels candidates for not embracing during campaigns. The pledge couldn’t be more simplistic, to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

Of course no one who has given any thought to policy or the real world would ever sign such a childish document. ATR’s Grover Norquist, Muth and others talk about this sacred pledge as a useful tool, and it is — a bludgeon to pound into submission anyone with a heterodoxical thought.

But the reductio ad absurdum is that if you can distill all fiscal policy into three words — no new taxes — you are a conservative. Indeed, Muth crowned Halseth his “conservative of the year” for 2010.

Halseth and Roberson were noteworthy during the campaign for their willingness to say “no new taxes” and their inability to name one cut they would support. Ah, what great conservatives.

Once the discussion turned to taxing mining, Roberson eagerly told the Review-Journal’s Ben Spillman: “I pledged to my constituents that I would not raise taxes and I’m not going to do that. You can raise taxes in one area and offset them by lowering taxes in another area.”

And Muth immediately patted Roberson on the back, saying that would not violate the simpleton’s — excuse me, simplistic — pledge because the anti-tax group says: “While ATR opposes any tax increase as a matter of principle, the Pledge does not require opposition to revenue neutral reform.”

My goodness. So the principle articulated here is that a lawmaker can pledge to never, ever raise taxes — because theoretically they cannot be salutary — but one can find a loophole and vote for an increase, so long as he or she cut taxes elsewhere, regardless of the harm the tax increase might do. This is an age-old principle: It’s called sophistry. Or, if you like, hypocrisy.

To his credit, Sandoval did not sign the pledge, and thoughtful lawmakers such as ex-Sen. Bill Raggio long argued against such litmus tests. But look what happens to reasonable men such as veteran state Sen. Dean Rhoads and freshman Assemblyman Ira Hansen when they say nothing should be off the table. They are pilloried by Muth & Co. and brainwashed by the governor so their minds are right (at least publicly).

Should advocates of tax increases have to justify why they are necessary and provide evidence they will not be destructive to the economy? Of course. But even the conservative think tank NPRI supports a new tax, forcing some businesses to collect a tax on services while lowering the overall rate.

Most infuriating by many Republicans is the reflexive abnegation of any thought and blind adherence to three words, rhetorical candy for those who fear pouring castor oil down the electorate’s gullet. And, as a recent retailers poll (lambasted this week by Muth as a ploy to get others taxed) and other surveys have shown, the public is not as benighted as the no-tax crowd thinks – voters understand the need for money to fund education and other services. But the self-muzzling act by Democrats either eager to return to the land of Adele’s, where they have the faux respect of lobbyists who will love them for 120 days and then move on, or to attain higher office is transparent and unproductive, even this early.

Just saying “read my lips” should not be enough for Republicans, just as the Democrats asking us to read their minds is not enough. We know what you don’t want; how about telling us what you want?

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