Grover Norquist, long considered by the left to be the dark marionette of conservative policymaking in America, and heralded as a hero of the limited government movement on the right, peered through his thin glasses at me across a table in Portland International Jetport, before explaining, “The fact that LePage got reelected, I think, was about him.”
I had just asked Norquist — an eccentric policy savant who recently made headlines for wanting to attend Burning Man because, in his words, the festival “is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.” — if he felt that Governor LePage’s victory was due to the governor’s policies, or whether he merely piggybacked on national anti-Obama sentiments.
“Where Republicans had victories on the gubernatorial level that were surprises—Illinois people thought should do well, but it was very much an Illinois specific victory,” he continued. “It was a rejection of Quinn and the democrat leadership in the state. Maryland was a specific referendum on the previous governor. So those were not necessarily anti-Obama, anti-national democrat movements. There’s a lot more opposition to Obama than there were republican votes at the state and local level. On Senate races, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas, where the entire campaign was this guy just voted with Obama on everything, then it really was about Obama. Less so on governors.”
The answer was trademark Norquist, thoughtful and specific. However, it was an answer I almost couldn’t get. In fact, it was something of a minor miracle that I was able to meet with Norquist at all.
Americans for Tax Reform has satellite coalition groups in each state, and he was in town recently making a regular visit. I was able to get some time with him to sit down and talk about Maine and national politics, what the recent elections meant, and what he sees on the horizon for Maine policymakers, particularly given the governor’s recent stated desire to eliminate the income tax. A snow storm, it seems, had other ideas.
As I drove out to meet him during the aforementioned storm, my uncooperative car decided to take a detour into a guardrail. While I was uninjured, the same could not be said for the car. My poor little Corola limped it’s way back to Portland and away from my planned meeting with the influential tax advocate. Dejected, I believed that I had missed my window for talking with Norquist, as he was flying back to D.C. that night to compete in the Funniest Celebrity Contest.
“I’ve got my material,” Norquist would later tell me. “I just need to decide which joke to open with.” Norquist won the contest in 2013, and placed third that night.
Fortunately for me, I was not the only one the storm had dealt a blow, as the storm had delayed Norquist’s flight to Washington. Through sheer strength of will, my bruised vehicle rolled it’s way to the jetport. I walked inside and found Norquist and Paul Blair, State Affairs Manager at Americans for Tax Reform, huddling around a gaudily decorated Christmas tree which sheltered the only available power outlet in the area.
After the usual pleasantries, we took a seat at a small restaurant outside the security checkpoint to discuss the 2014 elections and the future of Maine politics.
“Well, I think voters of Maine have sent a clear message that they’re happy with [Governor Paul LePage’s] governance despite all the campaigning, despite the millions of dollars spent against him and Republican candidates,” said Norquist. “A lot of money was thrown in, and yet the message of welfare reform and spending restraint, keeping taxes down was powerful enough to win in Maine, which people had begun to think of as a blue state.”
But the election results were attributed to more than simply the electorate’s response to Governor LePage’s agenda. Democrats, it seemed to Norquist, were also out of alignment with Maine people, something they were reminded of this year when legislative Democrats championed a sales tax increase. “The Democratic Party being identified with Obama and hard-left policies helped, but the idea that the Democrats never reformed government, they just raised taxes to pay for the bad previous government plus whatever new idea they had yesterday, was reinforced with this tax increase. Maine is an overtaxed state—it sits next to New Hampshire.”
“It’s cold up here,” he continued. “Why do you have so much larger government, more expensive government? It isn’t better government. The schools aren’t better. What are you getting with this money? And the answer is, it’s hard to see what they’re getting with that money.”
Norquist thought Governor LePage’s suggestion of eliminating the state income tax was a good step forward in fixing Maine’s problem of overtaxation. “Is it a good idea to begin to/commit to phasing out the income tax? The answer is yes.” Many states are considering similar legislation to decrease or phase out the income tax, he added.
How Maine gets there is an open question. The governor has been hinting at some ideas, but the man stranded with me at Portland Jetport has something very specific in mind.
Recent sweeping tax reform legislation from Kansas is, to Norquist, the model for phasing out the income tax. “It puts a cap on spending—you can’t spend more than 2% more each year,” he explained. “So if revenue comes in beyond 2%, the money goes to reducing the income tax, and ratcheting it down. Now, it’s a one way ratchet; it only ratchets down. So if there’s a recession and you don’t do as well, it doesn’t go up. It just sits there, and when you hit growth again it ratchets down. So if nobody does anything odd, in 15 years the income tax is gone.”
Some states, including Kansas, have raised the sales tax in order to partially compensate for revenue lost through the elimination of the income tax. Norquist, however, cautioned against any plan that would hike sales tax higher in order to pay for income tax cuts, because he feared that it was a difficult sell politically.
“I think I’m actually not a big fan of that, because you create enemies of everybody who didn’t used to pay a sales tax who now pays one; lawyers, advertisers, barbers, stuff like that. And When Martinez in Florida did this many years ago he lost the governorship.” said Norquist. “People believe tax increases. They’re not sure they really believe tax cuts are really going to happen. So they will thank you years from now about the income tax cut elimination and not like you right now for the sales tax increase.”
Before I concluded, I asked Norquist what conservatives would have to do if they wanted to build on their success this year. How could they, for instance, protect their new state Senate majority, and retake the House in two years?
“We need to have votes which expose the democrat house guys as out of touch with their voters. We’ve seen that they largely are,” said Norquist. “You have to be out there articulating a vision, you have to be out there holding real votes on real policies that you really want to pass, and then let the democrats either give you victories, or stand in front of a truck and have the people of Maine say those guys are crazy.”
“That’s how you dismantle the false consensus that people thought existed in favor of a Left-of-center Maine.”