The Corner

Republicans and Taxes

Kevin Holtsberry objects to my description of the state of play on sales taxes in Ohio (second item here). He calls that description “simplistic” and “disingenuous,” although he is kind enough to say (in an email informing me of his post) that he’s generally a fan of mine. I’m generally a fan of his, too, but I’m not persuaded by his arguments.

Which are: 1) The Ohio Republican establishment rejects Ken Blackwell not because he’s a conservative, as I wrote, but because he puts himself before the party; 2) Referenda, such as Blackwell’s referendum to repeal a recent sales-tax hike, are bad; 3) Ohio has kept spending flat except for Medicaid and education, so a tax increase was necessary.

My responses: 1) Assuming that Blackwell is putting himself before the state’s Republican party—and it is not obvious to me that support for tax increases really serves the interests of the party—so what? It is a good thing for politicians to be motivated by self-interest to support good policies. What if Blackwell were devoid of personal ambition, and were supporting this referendum purely on principle? Are we really to believe that the party establishment would then look on him with favor?

2) A lot of conservatives are suspicious of referenda, and there are reasonable arguments against it (although I personally find less persuasive in today’s context than I would if we had governments in line with the Founder’s intentions). These arguments, it seems to me, have whatever force they have chiefly against laws and constitutional amendments that authorize referenda. When the law provides for referenda, particular referenda should be judged on their merits.

3) This is the heart of the matter. The state budget, overall, is up 11 percent. Education and Medicaid account, as Holtsberry writes, for most of the increase. Perhaps judicial decree makes it impossible to cut education spending. But why should Medicaid spending be untouchable? The federal government does not mandate that Ohio cover as many people or services as it does through Medicaid. For that matter, why should we assume that the state’s government spending in 1996 on all other programs is to be taken as a minimum from which the only direction to go is up?

Finally, let me provide a little bit of context—although not the context Holtsberry had in mind when he complained about the lack of it in my item. Gov. Taft is not a fiscal conservative who has been forced by circumstances and against his will to raise taxes as a last resort. He spent the boom years raising spending and various minor taxes. He also complained about Bush’s tax cut this year and lobbied for federal subsidies. I hope Blackwell succeeds in his referendum, and that spending control comes to Columbus.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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