Ax Wielders Improve State Governments

By William D. Eggers and John O'Leary | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 23, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Ax Wielders Improve State Governments

William D. Eggers and John O'Leary, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Can the new governors deliver? That's the question after a whole slew of new GOP governors flooded into office promising to cut, chop and slash state budgets.

In New York, George Pataki pledged to cut the income tax rate by one-fourth. In Connecticut, John Rowland vowed to repeal the state's income tax by the year 2000. Republicans won a majority of governorships by advertising themselves as the party of budget choppers.

Their opponents had solemnly intoned that state governments absolutely, positively cannot operate with a cent less than they currently spend. "On the spending side, I don't see how you get from here to there," says Steve Gold, director of the Study of States, in Albany, N.Y.

History shows it can be done. In 1990, William Weld of Massachusetts was considered crazy for promising not to raise taxes in a state with an $850 million deficit. This year, he cruised to re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote, thanks to a balanced budget and, read his lips, "no new taxes."

Weld's boldness inspired New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman was elected in 1993 by promising lower taxes, and she immediately pushed through a 30 percent tax reduction.

Michigan Gov. John Engler is another ax-wielder who cruised to re-election, and he proves the first law of politics: "The more tax money that flows into government coffers the more money government will spend." Whitman states the corollary: "As soon as you start limiting revenues, government will do more with less."

Rather than crippling state governments, less money could make them healthier. Tax cuts create the discipline needed to streamline operations. States will have to learn to live within their means. Here's how they can do it:

Cut the help. It's time to let the chauffeur go. Experience shows that employment can be cut significantly without reducing essential services.

In his first 21 months, Weld cut the number of state employees under his control by almost 7,000, a 14 percent decrease. To stave off privatization, Massachusetts employees in the money-counting operation of the subway system voluntarily cut the number of workers to 59 from 71. In four years, Engler has cut the Michigan state payroll by 8 percent.

Gov. Terry Branstead of Iowa laid off 1,200 workers to balance his state's budget during the recession.

Significant downsizing can't occur without taking on the unions, and fiscal necessity can often provide the political courage needed. A promise to control spending sends the message that a governor puts taxpayers first. "Do I feel that I have an obligation to see to it that people who have been working in state government continue to work in state government? No, I don't," Weld told Forbes last year.

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