The Death of Fiscal Conservatism
Republicans can cut taxes. They just can't stop spending.
During any given election you can count on Republican candidates to campaign against government spending, bureaucratic waste and increased taxes. Consider some direct quotes from the state legislative campaign of one of my GOP colleagues we'll call "Justin" in order to keep my life within the Republican caucus realtively hassle-free.
"Justin will fight Bill Richardson's agenda of higher spending and higher taxes."
"Justin will battle wasteful spending."
"Justin will pinch pennies so the government won't pinch you."
That's real red meat rhetoric for red state voters. Justin sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative and tough talk like that is probably why voters in Justin's Republican district supported him.
Problem is, Justin just voted for a $4.67 billion budget bill that will increase state spending 6.7 percent—a level almost three times higher than inflation thanks to roughly $300 million in new state spending.
So what happened to that crusade against "Bill Richardson's agenda of higher spending"? Is that Justin's agenda now? How ’bout the battle to "pinch pennies so the government won't pinch you"? It doesn't look like Justin even took to the field.
Republicans like to point the finger (especially during elections) at an overly large state bureaucracy and government dependency for New Mexico's problems. On the "large" part, anyway, they may be right.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Mexico has 262 state employees for every 10,000 residents. By contrast, Colorado has 152, Texas has 126 and Arizona has 123.
Not only does New Mexico have a state bureaucracy that's twice as big proportionately as our neighbors, with spending measures that race well ahead of inflation getting the green light from Santa Fe, that bureaucracy is only getting bigger.
In fairness to Justin, the legislator has fought for a number of tax cuts—which will probably be highlighted in a re-election campaign. The spending increases will be rationalized as necessary for the acquisition of pork in the district. If that's the case, Justin would make a terrific member of the U.S. Congress where cutting taxes while voting for huge spending increases has become standard operating procedure.
We all know people want to have their cake and eat it, too. Making the desire to have it both ways public policy, however, is an incredibly bad idea. "Cut taxes/spend more" has led to the unmitigated disaster we more commonly refer to as the federal budget.
A few years ago, the nation was running budget surpluses. At that time we also lowered taxes but held the line on spending.
This year the federal government (with the GOP holding the White House and Congress) will run a deficit of about half a trillion dollars and will set a 15-year high for the number of people on the federal payroll. That red ink and bloat may also explain the slide of the dollar in world markets—especially in relation to the European Union's euro.
While apologists always point to the War on Terror for the fiscal hemorrhage, spending has ballooned even after you take defense and entitlements out of the equation.
The first three years of the Bush administration saw a 21 percent increase in non-defense spending—and that's before the costs of the prescription drug benefit kick in. By contrast, Ronald Reagan oversaw a 6.8 percent increase during his first three years in office while that liberal scoundrel Bill Clinton had federal spending decrease 0.7 percent during a similar time frame.
Lately, President Bush (who has yet to veto a spending bill) seems to have had a change of heart regarding his administration's fiscal policy. Bush wants to trim nondefense spending—except automatically paid benefits like Medicare—by a whopping 1 whole percent as part of his proposed $2.57 trillion budget for 2006.
But it's not congressional Democrats leading the charge against the president's scaled-down spending plan—it's members of his own party. MSNBC quoted Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) as saying, "We'll fight it with everything that's in us."
There was a time once—at least I think there was—when the Republican Party honestly considered itself a political force for limited government and fiscal restraint. That's what folks like Ronald Reagan said the party stood for, anyway.
Republican candidates—whether they're seeking office in Washington or Santa Fe—still rail against big government and big government spending but don't do anything serious about them once elected. Instead they wallow in a false sense of accomplishment by cutting taxes or proposing to cut taxes while opening up the spending spigot.
Bill Clinton once said, "The era of big government is over." No it isn't. The era of fiscal conservatism is over—political bullshit from folks like Justin aside. Some might think that's great news. But who would've thought a conservative approach to spending would be the one thing Republicans could actually manage to cut out of government?
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a state representative from the Northeast Heights, can be reached at email@example.com.
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