Let us try not to get to optimistic, yet, but it appears that Pennsylvania's new Lt. Governor Joe Scarnati (who is also President Pro Tempore of the state Senate) actually gets it.
Addressing Pennsylvania's growing budget crisis Scarnati has ruled out raising taxes. He said that if Republicans raise taxes: "what's the reason to vote for us?" He went on to tell the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that voting for higher taxes is the reason why Republicans have tanked at the national level.
The Lt. Governor has very quickly and succinctly cut to the core of the GOP's electoral problems both in Pennsylvania and nationally: it has squandered its brand as the party of low taxes and fiscal responsibility. In fact, in the recent national election, polls showed more voters actually viewed Democrats as better able to manage the federal budget than Republicans.
Although the Republican-controlled state Senate has been weak on holding the line on new spending, it has in recent years successfully blocked Governor Spendell's many proposed tax hikes. Perhaps that anti-tax position is the reason why, as everything else went in the tank for the GOP last month, state Senate Republicans actually added to their numbers? Perhaps it is not an accident that the Pennsylvania Senate is the only Republican controlled legislative chamber in the entire northeastern section of the country?
It is true, spending by state government has increased at an unsustainable level over the past few years (actually since the Thornburgh Administration), but at least Senate Republicans have held firm on raising taxes since the new leadership team headed by Scarnati was ushered in after the previous leadership was ousted in a wave of voter anger over the now infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise.
Returning to the present, Lt. Governor Scarnati has consistently said the commonwealth must live within its means, and he has put an exclamation point on that statement by taking a tax hike off the table. His challenge is going to be to get the rest of the Republican delegation in Harrisburg to go along. That, however, may finally be achievable.
The reason for optimism is a recent shift in the composition of the Republican caucuses in both chambers away from southeastern Pennsylvania moderates and toward a central-western Pennsylvania brand of fiscal conservatism. The shift is most pronounced in the House, where deposed Speaker John Perzel, who rammed Rendell's previous tax hikes through that chamber, was decidedly defeated in a bid to return to leadership by Republican Leader Sam Smith. Smith, and the new number two guy, Mike Turzai, both hail from western Pennsylvania and are far less likely to deal with Rendell. Given the fact Democrats control the state House, they in fact have little reason to do anything but be loyal opposition to a tax hike.
The power within Republican ranks now lies in the Senate, where the GOP holds commanding control of the chamber. Since no tax hike can be passed without both chambers' approval, Scarnati and his allies can kill any tax increase — if they stick to their guns and hang together.
And Scarnati is in a unique position to do this. Having been thrust into a high profile executive branch role by the recent death of Lt. Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, he occupies a highly unusual position: the power of being a top legislative leader and the pulpit of being a statewide official. Further, it is the first time in state history we have had a governor of one party and a lieutenant governor of the other. As such, Scarnati can rival Rendell as the face of state government in a way no legislative leader has ever been able to do.
At this early stage, Scarnati appears able and willing to use the platform he has been given to steer the Republican Party back to its traditional roots as an anti-tax and fiscally responsible party. Finally, a clear voice of reason has emerged from the babble in Harrisburg. Republicans — looking for a ray of sunshine in what have been stormy times — should rally around the Lt. Governor's clarion call to oppose taxes. First, Pennsylvania cannot tax and spend its way out of the current budget deficit — nor should it attempt to try. Doing so would only make the state's non-competitive tax climate even worse. Second, good policy makes for good politics, and reclaiming the party's brand is a mandatory first step toward reclaiming electoral dominance in 2010.
Yes, Lt. Governor Scarnati is right: what reason would anyone have to vote for Republicans if they inflict job crushing higher taxes upon we the people of Penn's woods? If Scarnati stays the course, he may in fact be a game changer for the GOP.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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