Whither the tax revolt?
By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
The March primary ballots were not yet all tallied before the pundits pronounced the results a taxpayers' revolt that boded ill for Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Edgar. "Tax Revolt Hits Pols," headlined one Chicago daily, while its metropolitan counterpart declared, "GOP Warns Edgar on Taxes."
Aides to Edgar's Democratic rival, Neil F. Hartigan, chortled over the 33 percent of the GOP vote garnered by lesser-known New Right campaigner Steven Baer, and a skittish Republican congressman hinted Edgar might consider revising his position that the current temporary income tax hike should be made permanent.
While it's tempting to buy into the conventional wisdom that the tax issue will be Edgar's downfall, closer examination of the March 20 results suggests the analysis may be flawed.
Although Baer hammered high taxes in press conferences and appearances before general audiences, it was the challenger's unflinching opposition to abortion that galvanized evangelical Christians and other right-to-life advocates. The clear choice between Baer's anti-abortion views and Edgar's pro-choice stance appeared to bring to the polls many pro-life voters who normally would not vote in either party's primary, helping push Republican turnout to its highest level for a non-presidential primary in 28 years. In fact, more than 809,000 GOP ballots were cast, 26 percent above the average for the last five non-presidential primaries and almost 240,000 more than in 1986. And while fewer Democratic ballots were cast outside the Chicago metropolitan area than four years ago, GOP voter ranks downstate swelled by almost 85,000.
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the anti-abortion influence comes from normally Democratic Effingham County. Four years ago, Republicans comprised less than 40 percent of the primary vote in this pro-life stronghold. This year almost 70 percent of those who voted requested GOP ballots, and Baer clobbered Edgar 62 percent to 35 percent.
Similar anti-abortion sentiment may have pushed Baer's numbers up elsewhere in which case his showing offers no clear advantage to either candidate. In fact, the abortion issue could pose a problem for Hartigan, who some pro-life activists believe betrayed their cause by deciding to settle out of court a lawsuit involving abortion clinic regulation.
But isn't it just as plausible to believe the heavy GOP vote came from folks wishing to send Edgar and others a message that they're fed up with high taxes? Besides Baer's unexpectedly strong showing, those postulating a tax revolt theory could point to the defeats of DuPage County Board Chairman Jack T. Knuepfer and state Rep. Gene L. Hoffman (R-40, Elmhurst),both upset by political newcomers who campaigned against the suburban county's high real estate taxes.
Again, however, contrary evidence exists. Consider, for example, the fate of the 26 incumbent lawmakers facing primary challenges. All 16 Democrats voted for higher income taxes, but only Rep. Robert T. Krska of Chicago lost, mostly because Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) wanted the seat for his brother, Daniel J. Burke.
Three of the 10 Republicans supported, the income tax increase, with Hoffman the, sole casualty, and some GOP insiders believe the 12-term lawmaker lost largely because he wasn't attentive enough to the fences back home while becoming the GOP's acknowledged expert on school financing. Moreover, two of the seven Republicans who voted "no" fell to challengers with teachers' union support. The remaining four House Republicans who voted for the income tax and sought re-election were nominated without opposition.
Additionally, in the suburban Chicago area, ostensibly the hotbed of anti-tax fervor, voters approved almost 40 percent (15 out of 40) of the school district tax increase referenda on the ballot, hardly indicative of a broad-based revolt.
Even assuming the tax issue is one Hartigan can exploit, the Democrat must handle it deftly, lest it backfire into a cloud
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on his own credibility. So far, Hartigan's approach has been to say Edgar wants two more tax increases, but to waffle himself on whether to keep education's share of the temporary income tax hike, tying it to performance. Though he promises to decide before the election, the strategy could be risky.
First, his characterization of Edgar's position smacks of the sort of distortion Dan Walker used against Paul Simon in 1972, a comparison that Hartigan of all people should find odious. Furthermore, those knowledgeable about the state's fiscal affairs are extremely skeptical that the state can kiss goodbye any of the $700 million or so in added revenue from the temporary tax hike come mid-1991, as the Democratic nominee implies.
Even if the schools can't show instant results, does anyone seriously believe state education outlays will be chopped more than $360 million? Will House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago), who crafted the temporary tax hike last spring to help incoming Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley plug a budget hole, allow the city and others sharing in the $330 million windfall to be cut off cold turkey?
In an effort to allay such doubts, Hartigan and his budget advisers suggest that, even without the higher tax rates, enough money could be found for schools, local governments and other good causes if state agencies were run in a business-like manner, instead of the profligate practices of the Thompson years.
Again, doubting Thomases abound. Their skepticism was reinforced by Thompson's proposed fiscal year 1991 budget, which calls for higher cigarette and telephone taxes but still would leave unpaid bills totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. While Hartigan labeled it a "blueprint for bankruptcy," it also might afford him a perfect opportunity to transform the skeptics into true believers. To do so, Hartigan needs only to have his Democratic party mates, who control the appropriations committees in both chambers, find and eliminate all that wasteful spending.
Until then, however, Hartigan could be the one vulnerable on the tax issue, at least among voters who value candor in their candidates.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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