For tax foes, plenty to like in GOP field

 For tax foes, plenty to like in GOP field

The Republican field of presidential candidates is chock-full of current and former governors touting strong tax-cutting records, exciting conservatives who believe a long-sought rewrite of the tax code could finally be within reach.

Jeb Bush says he cut taxes by almost $20 billion in his eight years as Florida’s governor. Gov. Scott Walker talks up his tax-slashing record in Wisconsin right alongside his showdown with organized labor. And Gov. John Kasich just weeks ago signed a budget in Ohio that cut taxes for both businesses and individuals.
 

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In all, more than half of the Republican presidential field — nine of 17 candidates — has been a governor, with four of the contenders currently serving as their state’s chief executive.
 
Fiscal hawks aren’t fans of every GOP governor in the 2016 field, with former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas receiving particular scorn for a range of tax hikes. But conservatives are hopeful that the budget victories the candidates have won in statehouses around the country can be replicated in Washington come 2017.
 
“That’s what’s lost, temporarily I hope, in all the Trump mania,” said the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, referring to the billionaire businessman Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE’s current domination of the Republican field.
 
“This is an incredibly deep bench,” added Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform keeps a close eye on state fiscal battles. “You’ve got 17 guys running, and at least 10 of them you’d be very happy to bring back to your mother and not have to make any excuses.”
 
For several years now, the tax reform conversation has sputtered in Washington, with Republicans and Democrats divided over big-picture issues like whether to raise more revenue and what to do with individual tax rates.
 
That’s meant that state governments have been where most of the action has been on tax policy, with budget analysts from across the political spectrum examining the tax-cutting efforts of GOP governors and legislatures around the country.
 
Top Republicans like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign Blue wave poses governing risks for Dems Dems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests MORE (R-Wis.) have started to openly wonder about the chances for a clean GOP sweep next year, and began looking at 2017 as the potential date for the sort of comprehensive rewrite of the tax code that happens roughly once in a generation.
 
With deficits continuing to drop, Republicans are also sounding less worried about crafting a tax reform plan that wouldn’t add to the federal debt. And for the governors running for president, cutting taxes in Washington could be much simpler than back home, where they face balanced budget requirements.
 
All that’s left budget wonks on the left — who say that the GOP’s tax-cutting ways in the states have overpromised and underdelivered — wary of what Republican governors past and present might do if they enter the Oval Office. “We don’t see the economic boom that proponents of these big tax cuts promised,” said Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “You just don’t see it.”
 
Here is a closer examination of some of the GOP governors’ tax records.
 
Jeb Bush, Florida governor, 1999 to 2007
 
No one doubts that Bush, in tandem with a GOP legislature, was a pretty serious tax-cutter. But independent analysts have said the $20 billion figure he cites might overstate the Florida governor’s impact by counting the revenue reductions from policies like the federal cut in the estate tax. Martin Sullivan of Tax Analysts, a former top Treasury economist, has estimated that Bush’s tax cuts were more in the neighborhood of $13 billion.
 
Florida doesn’t have a state income tax, but Bush did push to cut property and sales taxes during his eight-year tenure. In fact, questions about Bush from Norquist and groups like the Club for Growth often center on his more recent stances, like his statement three years ago that he’d trade $1 in tax hikes for $10 in spending cuts. Bush has since backed away from that line, but still refuses to sign the anti-tax pledge administered by ATR.
 
Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor, 2011 to present
 
By 2017, the tax cuts enacted by Walker — again, with a GOP legislature — will total up to some $4.8 billion, according to nonpartisan projections from the state’s legislative analysts. That includes some $1.3 billion from cutting income tax rates, which went into effect in 2013, and another $1.7 billion in property tax reductions.  
 
ATR and the Club for Growth give that record generally good marks, though other free-market groups have said Wisconsin’s tax system still needs improving. The Club for Growth also applauds Walker for rolling back tax incentives for the working poor, while Norquist backs the governor’s record on spending. But more liberal analysts like the CBPP’s Leachman have criticized Walker for cutting the earned income tax credit, and noted that steep cuts in education spending have helped foot the bill for his tax cuts.
 
John Kasich, Ohio governor, 2011 to present
 
Kasich plugged what he called $5 billion worth of tax cuts in the first GOP debate this month. The state budget that Kasich signed almost two months ago cuts taxes by almost $2 billion, with an across-the-board income tax reduction that gets the top rate to below 5 percent and expands relief for small businesses.
 
Still, Kasich got lukewarm marks from Norquist, who said that Ohio’s Republican legislature was the more aggressive tax-cutter. “He signed bills that got significantly better for taxpayers than when he introduced them,” Norquist said.
 
Kasich has also backed some tax increases, like a 35-cent hike in the cigarette tax. Liberals aren’t particularly big fans of Kasich’s work, either. One recent analysis said the poor will pay slightly more in taxes after the most recent tax cuts in Ohio, with the richest getting a tax cut of $10,000 a year.
 
Mike Huckabee, Arkansas governor, 1996 to 2007
 
For years now, Huckabee has been a proponent of a national sales tax. In just over a decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee cut taxes on investment income, expanded incentives for families and largely exempted the poor from the state income tax.  
 
But it’s the tax hikes that Huckabee signed that angered groups like Club for Growth, which has sparred with Huckabee for almost eight years over his record. On Huckabee’s watch, taxes went up on gasoline and cigarettes, in addition to a broader sales tax increase. The former governor has defended the gas tax increase, saying it was popular with voters.
 
In a new white paper, the free-market Club for Growth said Huckabee “has yet to take responsibility for the exorbitant rise in taxes” that occurred during his tenure.
 
Chris Christie, New Jersey governor, 2010 to present
 
Christie has presided over by the far bluest state among GOP governors running for president — meaning, Norquist says, “you have to grade on a curve.”
 
Norquist’s grade for Christie is pretty high, and includes good marks for restraining spending. “He’s vetoed more tax increases than anyone in Western civilization,” Norquist said.
 
Christie’s record includes allowing taxes on businesses and the highest earners to expire, and a cap on local property taxes. He also cut the earned income tax credit, much to the dismay of liberal analysts.
 
But his record on tax incentives for business actually gets mixed reviews on the right, as well. Club for Growth called his business record “pretty bad,” knocking Christie for giving too many incentives to big business.
 
Rick Perry, Texas governor, 2000 to 2015
 
Perry — who, like Bush, presided over a state without an income tax — gets generally good grades on the right. The free-market Tax Foundation, for instance, finds that Texas pairs a low tax burden on individuals with a good tax climate for business.
 
Perhaps Perry’s biggest accomplishment on taxes is what he and pro-business groups dub the largest net tax cut ever in Texas — a package that paired property tax cuts, an increase in taxes on cigarettes and an overhaul of taxes for business.
 
Liberals, however, point out that Texas’s low-tax reputation is more true for the rich than the poor, projecting that the lowest earners pay a rate more than four times higher than the wealthy.
 
Bobby Jindal, Louisiana governor, 2008 to present
 
Jindal has fought to keep taxes low, and once even proposed the idea of trading out Louisiana’s income tax for an expanded sales tax. Norquist called him a “hero” for reducing the size of government in Louisiana, though Jindal also recently faced a $1.6 billion shortfall as well and questions about cuts in the state’s education system.
 
And even some Republicans criticized Jindal’s package for raising new revenues to bridge Louisiana’s shortfall without running afoul of ATR’s anti-tax pledge.
 
In short, Jindal proposed a $1,500 fee on college students that was totally offset by a corresponding tax credit — meaning students wouldn’t face a higher bill. Even so, Jindal used the $350 million raised on paper by the tax credit to offset revenue increases elsewhere in the budget, thus allowing him to say he didn’t raise taxes.
 
George Pataki, New York governor, 1995 to 2007
 
Groups like the libertarian Cato Institute have said that Pataki started strong as governor — with a 25 percent cut in the income tax, for instance — before falling prey to tax increases later in his tenure.
 
Jim Gilmore, Virginia governor, 1998 to 2002
 
Gilmore is likely best known for rolling back Virginia’s car tax, which was the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign.