In Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Captain Ahab’s mad and unrelenting pursuit of the white whale brought on the destruction of the whaler Pequod and its crew. Here on the S.S. Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer’s pursuit of a sales tax increase is turning her into the fiscal-policy equivalent of the tragic Ahab.
For the last four months, “Captain Brewhab” has held the state budget hostage in her seemingly endless quest to temporarily raise the state sales tax rate by 18 percent. In doing so, she has destroyed her working relationship with the Legislature, driven a wedge within her political party, pushed the state closer to bankruptcy, allowed enactment of a $250 million property tax increase, and wasted valuable time during which Arizona’s state agencies could have been cutting spending by rooting out waste and inefficiencies.
Captain Brewhab’s course has not been merely destructive, but truly bizarre.
There was a narrow 3-percent difference between the legislative majority’s overall June budget of $9.8 billion and Brewhab’s preferred budget of $10.1 billion. Under the majority’s budget, total state spending, including K-12 spending, would still be significantly higher in real terms (adjusted for state population growth and inflation) than it was in 2002. And yet, Brewhab declared that the majority budget meant “devastating cuts.” On July 1, she unsheathed her veto pen and attempted to harpoon the unruly majority.
Just as Ahab was emboldened, rather than chastened, by the loss of his leg during his first encounter with the white whale, Brewhab seems to have limped away from the June budget battle with even greater zeal to get the Legislature to refer her sales tax hike to the ballot. But as the weeks have passed, Brewhab’s mad crusade has taken the state into even murkier waters.
In July and August, the Republican majority came close to passing an income tax cut package designed as a quid pro quo to offset the damage of Brewhab’s proposed sales tax hike. Brewhab agreed to the deal, even though it would have greatly reduced the net new revenue going to the state during the next two fiscal years. Put differently, Brewhab was so hell-bent on sending a sales tax hike to the ballot that she apparently did not care how much revenue would be raised.
Just as the inscrutable white whale destroyed Ahab’s replacement leg (an ivory prosthetic), the ever-fractious Legislature sank the tax cut deal and handed Brewhab a second defeat, to which she responded on Sept. 4 by lashing out once again with the veto harpoon.
Perhaps the strangest part of this saga is the fact that even without the legislative majority’s tax cuts, Brewhab’s proposed sales tax hike still would leave the state with a $1.5 billion structural deficit in the next fiscal year. Because state government cannot hope to borrow that much, it will have to make big spending cuts, with the tax or without it. So much for Brewhab’s political strategy of appeasing the spending lobbies.
Even as he careened toward his final destruction, Captain Ahab at times seemed lucid about the horrible nature of his obsession. So, too, with Captain Brewhab, as she ponders the impending bankruptcy of the S.S. Arizona. In her most recent veto message, Brewhab admitted that her veto “results in education
funding levels that are not sustainable.”
On the command deck of the Ninth Floor, the governor’s key political adviser, Chuck Coughlin, seems to be playing the role of the mysterious Fedallah, who urged Ahab onward until he met his terrible end. Let us hope that Captain Brewhab will instead heed the wise counsel of Starbuck, who pleaded with Ahab to change course:
“Forbear! ’tis an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued; let me square the yards, while we may… and make a fair wind of it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this.”
– Tom Jenney is Arizona director for Americans for Prosperity.