Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who’s quickly becoming a household name in these parts thanks to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s adamant refusal to cross the group’s anti-tax line in the sand, seems to have a sense of humor.
“Hey, conspiracy theorists,” Norquist wrote on Twitter this week. “There are entirely too many news articles and tweets crediting me with complete control of ONLY Louisiana. WTHeck.”
What clearly prompted the joke was a run of stories linking Norquist’s demands with Jindal’s budget woes, including one in The Advocate and one in Politico, and noting the governor’s determination not to let a black mark from ATR stand in the way of his apparent presidential hopes.
Democratic consultant James Carville, who can be expected to support his old pal Hillary Clinton in 2016, jumped into the conversation, as well. Carville wrote a letter to the LSU Reveille putting huge expected higher ed cuts at Norquist’s feet and, for good measure, calling him “pond scum.” Carville later apologized — to pond scum.
“He is the single most influential person in the entire state of Louisiana. The state has turned its sovereignty over to him,” Carville said. “I wouldn’t want sharia law to govern Louisiana. Nor would I want Grover Norquist.”
But seriously, folks, there’s a reason so many people are honing in on the group’s hold over Louisiana government in particular, rather than the nation’s statehouses in general.
It’s not because Norquist is so powerful on his own. He is, after all, the head of a Washington, D.C., interest group and holds no political or constitutional office down here.
And it’s not because Jindal is unusual in having signed the group’s pledge to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.” All sorts of politicians have done the same.
What gives Norquist and his lieutenants the control they clearly have is that Jindal has simply given it to them.
In defending their role, ATR officials like to point out that the pledge reads as a promise to a politician’s constituents, not to the group.
It’s the interpretation of the pledge that’s the rub. As many people who’ve had conversations with the administration have said, and as Jindal and his aides have pretty much publicly admitted, the governor is not just refusing to raise taxes. He’s hewing to ATR’s highly debatable interpretation of the pledge’s terms.
That means refusing to consider anything that would increase revenue unless it’s paired with an equal, explicit offset. That means eliminating only those tax breaks that exceed a payer’s liability so the action can be counted as a spending cut. A couple of years ago, that meant vetoing a 4-cent cigarette tax renewal — 4 cents! — because refusing to let it expire somehow counted as a tax increase.
The interpretation is almost comically strict. That’s not on Norquist, who has no power to enforce the pledge. It’s on Jindal.
Think about it. The governor and his aides apparently ran just about every option to close the $1.6 billion budget hole by ATR for approval. They came up with a contorted plan to cut inventory tax rebates for levies paid to local parishes, a proposal that would meet the group’s criteria even though it would effectively raise taxes on the companies affected. They proposed an equally convoluted scheme to link cigarette taxes to higher ed spending. And most importantly, they left all sorts of potential sources of revenue on the table and tax breaks for which the state is not getting its money’s worth untouched.
It’s easy to say that Jindal made the pledge to his constituents, but did he ever ask them if they agree with ATR’s interpretation? Not that I recall.
The promising news is that some legislators, particularly anti-tax Republicans who’ve either signed the pledge or agree with it in principle, are pushing back and reclaiming their right to interpret it more sensibly.
Jindal may still be the state’s chief executive, but until he starts following their lead, there’s little chance of avoiding catastrophic service cuts. Norquist can sit in D.C. and chuckle all he wants, but here in Louisiana, there’s really nothing funny about that.