Herbst signs pledge, Norquist talks history

Last Monday, gubernatorial candidate Tim Herbst made a big play for the fiscally conservative bedrock of the Republican electorate when he toured the state with Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, including stopping by The Day to give me a chance for an interview. You can view it on www.theday.com.

Norquist is most famous for being the primary creator and chief promoter of the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” a signed promise never to support a net increase in taxes. It dates back to the Reagan years when Norquist was just a young man in his 20s, but a very influential one.

Herbst signed the pledge at a news conference in Hartford.

Politically, it was a great move. Of the five Republican candidates running in the GOP primary, only businessman Bob Stefanowski, who seems intent on trying to stay to the right of the field, has also signed the pledge. But here was Herbst moving across Connecticut with one of the patron saints of modern Republican fiscal conservatism. Norquist’s little pledge has had an enormous impact, which he likes to point out.

“The pledge nationally has the Republican Party branded … as the party that won’t raise your taxes,” he told me. “They may invade small countries you can’t pronounce but they won’t raise your taxes. And that’s been good enough to control the House and Senate for most of that period, with a couple of brief interruptions.”

The downside is that the federal government has continued to grow while Republicans held the line on taxes and, more recently, cut them, particularly for the wealthy. The result is that the federal debt, which stood at 38 percent of GDP when the pledge came along, is spiking toward 100 percent by 2030 and 150 percent of GDP by 2040.

And the problem for Herbst is that the Connecticut legislature, unlike the U.S. Congress, has to actually balance a budget. Closing the $4.6 billion shortfall projected over the first two years that the next governor will be in office, without some net increase in tax revenues, seems, well, impossible.

During our interview, Norquist essentially issued a warning as to what happens if anyone breaks his pledge, and it ain’t pretty. He offered up the severed head of former President George H.W. “Read my lips, no new taxes” Bush as an example (symbolically, I mean).

“Bush broke the pledge in ’90 and didn’t get himself re-elected, even though he had managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and had a series of successes as president. He had one big failure, and that was he raised taxes,” Norquist said. “We haven’t had someone break the pledge since Bush.”

I thought I saw Herbst squirm a bit in his seat, but it was probably just my imagination.

Norquist seemed miffed that any Republican politician would not do the politically expedient thing.

“I’m always surprised at people who balk at signing the pledge when signing the pledge would be a smart political move to get them past the next election,” Norquist said.

So it is all about is the next election. Who knew? I thought this no-tax-increase thing had some higher ideal.

One way Herbst said he plans to return Connecticut to fiscal stability without any increase in taxes is to get more concessions from state labor unions, through either negotiations or the hard way — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker style. Of course, he would need a willing legislature to play hardball.

Norquist’s contempt for public sector unions was clear. He was gleeful with anticipation that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule later in the week that state governments, like Connecticut, could no longer compel government employees to pay union dues. The Supreme Court did exactly that on Wednesday, in a 5-4 decision.

“The reason union bosses are worried is they know what happens if you don’t force people to pay union dues and they know how much damage they do to workers with their dues,” Norquist said.

Not sure about damage, but in Connecticut those union bosses have landed employees some great benefits.

Norquist likened making the employees pay union dues to forcing someone to empty their pockets at “gunpoint.”

“You don’t do this (pay dues), you don’t keep your job. That level of destructiveness ends this week,” Norquist said.

But is this really about fighting for the free-speech rights of workers not to pay dues? Nah. It’s about weakening the unions. Herbst needs weaker unions to keep that no-tax-increase pledge.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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