Sacramento--Republican politicians long have claimed to be disciples of Ronald Reagan. But they have strayed far from the master’s teachings. This is evident in the current Legislature and the race for governor.
Ronald Reagan -- a Republican’s Republican -- would have raised taxes long ago to balance the state budget. How do we know? Because he did -- twice.
He was a conservative, but even more than that, Reagan was a pragmatist, whose goal was to run a successful, efficient state government that balanced spending with revenue.
And as a political campaigner, Reagan did not cower in a cocoon controlled by consultants, as has fellow actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was readily accessible to political reporters.
There also was little ambiguity in his statements. Reagan clearly was guided by a powerful philosophical compass and knew where he was headed. So did the people. Voters still can’t be sure about Schwarzenegger.
Reagan’s governorship (1967-1975) is chronicled in a new book by his most persistent, most thorough biographer, retired Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon. It is Cannon’s fifth Reagan book, and this one focuses on the Sacramento years. (“Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power.” Available Sept. 16.)
“They [Republican pols] talk about Ronald Reagan today as if he were Jesus Christ, but the Ronald Reagan they talk about only existed in their heads,” Cannon told me. “The real Ronald Reagan was a pragmatist.”
The book does not compare Reagan or the GOP legislators of his era with the present bunch of wannabe governors and intransigent lawmakers. But the contrast is clear to any observer of California politics.
Cannon writes: “As he later demonstrated as president, Reagan was simultaneously conservative and pragmatic. He had a competitive streak that made him determined to succeed, even when success required him to ignore ideology. On most issues, he clung to his opinions without allowing them to undermine his governance.”
One similarity with Schwarzenegger was that Reagan never took a no-tax pledge in his first gubernatorial race. He did denounce high property taxes -- the top tax issue of the day -- and wound up providing significant homeowner’s relief as governor. But he left himself in position to initially raise several taxes without flip-flopping.
Contrast that with the current conservative in the gubernatorial race, Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who has been waving a no-tax pledge along the campaign trail.
At first, Reagan attempted a cookie-cutter, across-the-board 10% cut in all state programs. That was rejected by legislators, including Republicans. Even if it had not been, this alone would not have covered the deficit Reagan had inherited from Democrat Pat Brown.
“To candidate Reagan,” Cannon writes, “it had seemed as if there was more than enough revenue available to pay for everything. Gov. Reagan would learn differently.... The cornerstone of Gov. Reagan’s economic program was not the ballyhooed budget reductions but a sweeping tax package four times larger than the previous record.... It was a breathtaking display of pragmatism.”
It totaled nearly $1 billion -- more than $5 billion in 2003 dollars. Most Republicans voted for it. The bill was carried through the Legislature by a Republican senator, future Gov. George Deukmejian.
Deukmejian, Cannon writes, “was pleasantly surprised by the governor’s willingness to raise taxes.”
During Reagan’s tenure, corporation taxes nearly doubled, from 5.5% to 9%. The tax on banks rose from 9.5% to 13%. The state’s share of the sale tax went from 3% to 4.75%. The maximum income tax increased from 7% to 11%, and more people were shoved into higher tax brackets.
By almost any measure, Reagan was a successful governor. A governor revered by Republicans. But Reagan could not have governed so successfully if he’d been burdened with this current crop of dug-in GOP lawmakers.
Indeed, Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga threatened in June to personally campaign against any Republican who voted for a tax increase. Without tax hikes, the state has been forced to borrow nearly $20 billion to make ends meet.
It’s not as if California is a grossly overtaxed state, despite Republican rhetoric. California ranks only 19th -- slightly above the nation’s average -- in state and local taxes and fees as a percentage of personal income, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators.
Says Robert T. Monagan, 83, who during the Reagan era was the Assembly Republican leader: “I get mad at people who won’t vote for taxes. You can’t solve problems without taxes. I’d vote for some taxes; vote for a lot of cuts, too. They just don’t know how to do it.”
Somebody needs to bring Reaganomics back to Sacramento.
The GOP gospel according to Reagan helped the party and the people.