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Our Views: A misguided promise
No tax hike pledge forces candidates into a corner before they can take office
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Candidates respond to tax pledge

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. Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

During the 1988 presidential race, candidates went back and forth over who was more sincere about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag, which even then seemed a silly issue in the midst of the more serious matters of the time.
Now a new pledge is dominating elections, this one a bit more substantive but just as distracting in its own way.

Republican candidates seeking office in Hall County this year are being asked to sign a “no tax” pledge leading up to the May 20 primary. Hall GOP leaders began doing so in 2010, following a national trend led by conservative activist Grover Norquist to oppose all tax increases. The idea is to have candidates put in writing their promise to remain fiscally conservative.

Most are quick to sign such a pledge, but a few running for Hall school board seats this year have balked, believing such a rigid promise ties their hands once in office. And we can see their point.

If you’ll recall, the winner of that 1988 presidential race, George H.W. Bush, found that to be the case. His “Read my lips, no new taxes” vow from the campaign later became an anvil around his neck when he agreed to raise tax rates in response to a sluggish economy. It led many in the GOP to abandon him during his 1992 re-election bid, which he lost to Bill Clinton.

We agree raising taxes at any time should only be a last resort. People work hard for their money and don’t need government frittering away any more of it than necessary, particularly on wasteful items aimed to please special interests. Governments should balance their budgets and spend no more than they take in.

Yet herein lies the problem: While no one wants to raise or pay more taxes (except maybe Hollywood millionaires), sometimes unforeseen problems make it unavoidable. Office-seekers who throw that option off the table are tying their own hands and setting their constituents up for a letdown. Issues that are the focus of campaigns often change after an election, and officials often must adjust to a changing reality.

Hall leaders made every effort to avoid that during the Great Recession despite a huge drop in revenues. Mortgage foreclosures led to a drop in property tax collections, sales taxes declined as people spent less, and tighter federal and state budgets limited what was passed down to the local level. With less money available, county officials cut back spending and were forced to curtail some services to make ends meet.

But the people who holler loudly when their taxes go up often are the same ones who don’t want services interrupted. The closing of libraries, furloughing of teachers and delay in building new parks and fire stations all were met with sharp criticism.

It seems we want it both ways: Give us the government we want and need but don’t make us pay more for it. Public officials are caught in the middle, trying to stretch fewer dollars further without impacting the health and safety of the community.

Those elected often must make these unpopular decisions that boil down to two choices: cut services or raise taxes, either of which will make someone unhappy.

All that said, asking candidates to sign such a “no tax” pledge is painting them into a corner they can’t escape. Those who refuse likely will be targeted by other candidates as “big taxers,” even if all they really intend is to avoid making promises they may not keep. They will be labeled as “less than a real Republican” for this wise choice, apparently under the view that all party members must think and act in lockstep on every issue or risk being branded a wannabe.

And rest assured, Democrats can be just as inflexible when candidates choose to make up their own minds on specific issues that supposedly define one’s party bona fides.

These hyper-ideological litmus tests don’t help attract the best candidates. Locked-in policy positions are about politics, not good government. We are all far too familiar with candidates willing to say anything to get elected. Those who adhere to party orthodoxy to get nominated and elected leave themselves no wiggle room for compromise. That fuels the partisan divide and makes common ground harder to reach.

Fortunately, the rising economic tide is boosting tax revenues back to pre-recession levels across the board, and governments have eased up on harsh budget cuts. State tax revenues were up more than 5 percent in February, which should trickle down to the local levels. So it’s unlikely any local officeholders will need to consider raising taxes anytime soon.

And yet, if the bottom drops out of the economy again, they can’t be limited in how to deal with it.

Candidates always will make promises as they seek office. Voters should listen and hold them to their word on all issues. If they break a promise for a good reason, it’s up to us to decide if the decision was right.

And those who fail to earn and keep the public’s trust will find themselves tossed out of office no matter what pledge they did or didn’t sign.

What is needed in leadership roles at all levels are fewer unbending ideologues bound by a single set of positions and talking points, and more open-minded, independent thinkers who can clearly and objectively assess problems and work together to solve them.

Above all, the people elected to office should work hard to serve the people, not party bosses shoving pieces of paper under their noses.

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