I wonder if Jim Florio, the former Governor of New Jersey who became famous because he raised taxes, feels any better about his fate now that he has been included in Caroline Kennedy’s new book of modern profiles in courage. Florio took office in 1990 and found himself staring at a recession-battered state treasury that couldn’t pay its bills. So he raised taxes, setting the stage for the longest political wake in memory. Three years went by before he could be buried, but buried he was, by a challenger—Christine Todd Whitman—who cheerfully promised tax cuts for everyone.
All these years later, the ghost of Jim Florio continues to haunt politics, not just in New Jersey, but on the other side of the river in New York and across the country. Politicians in fear of their careers dare not raise taxes, for fear that some other Christine Todd Whitman will come along and relegate them to history.
Oh, and speaking of history: as governor, Whitman made good on her pledge. She cut the state personal income tax by $3 billion. Then, during her two terms, the state government borrowed about the same amount. And now her successor, James E. McGreevey, is stuck with the tab. When McGreevey was a candidate last summer, it was clear that New Jersey’s economy was suffering, even before the horrors of Sept. 11. But there was no talk of tax hikes—actually, come to think of it, there was talk of tax hikes. The talk revolved around the premise that tax hikes were unacceptable. The Republican candidate for governor, Bret Schundler, defined the issue when he charged that McGreevey was the second coming of Jim Florio. That forced McGreevey to promise over and over again that he would not raise the state’s personal, property and sales taxes—the big-ticket revenue-raisers.
Now, as governor and a man of his word, McGreevey is trying to plug a leaky budget without even whispering the phrase “tax increase.” Meanwhile, in New York, the city’s billionaire mayor is trying to manage a huge fiscal crisis—a budget deficit of $6 billion—without raising taxes. If he even attempted such a thing, he has said, rich people with their greater mobility would head for...well, he doesn’t specify the locale. New Jersey, perhaps?
The most astonishing sign yet of the non-debate over taxes came a few weeks ago when a Democratic candidate for governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, sought to position himself as a tax-cutting alternative to the tax-cutting incumbent governor, George Pataki. Andrew Cuomo is the son of Mario Cuomo, who lost to Pataki in 1994 in part because Pataki insisted that New York taxes were too high.
It’s all childish, really, except that even as these supposed leaders refuse to consider raising new revenues, the federal government is warning of possible terrorist attacks in subways, commuter trains, tourist attractions and just about every other public space in the New York area. Nervous citizens ask not how much more they need to pay for their safety. They ask what their country can do for them at the cheapest possible price.
The nation is at war, yet no politician dares suggest that defending the nation’s homeland will require greater sacrifice, i.e., a tax increase, among other steps. The ghost of Jim Florio continues to haunt the national debate, so much so that even those who know better must adopt the pose of zealous tax-cutter. I ride a commuter train and a subway every day, and you can be sure that I’d like to see a police officer at my station and a patrol of police underground. Better yet, I’d like to think that unnoticed eyes are scanning the trains and stations, ready to pounce. And in the best-case scenario, I wish the would-be troublemakers within our borders all the paranoia in the world. I want them to think that every face they see could be an undercover cop or a government agent, watching and waiting.
But such measures cost money, and political leaders are afraid to say so. (And the bad guys, I’ll wager, know this.) Politicians are afraid to point out that we will have to pay better salaries, and offer more respect for government service, if we want a new, super-competent F.B.I. and C.I.A. We’ve spent more than 20 years denigrating those who choose public service over private-sector enrichment, often referring to anybody in a government job as a mere “bureaucrat.” No wonder a generation of smart young people chose white-shoe law firms over the F.B.I.—there’s no money in government service, and that’s all that matters.
In the New York region, wounded so terribly on Sept. 11, governors and mayors are frightened to ask voters to pay for the increased security they demand. Political leaders, then, are hoping that token displays of force will buck up the spirits of those of us who are learning to live with daily terror alerts. Instead of hiring and training hundreds more police officers and emergency personnel, political leaders are trying to get by with a couple of cops on overtime, hoping the worst doesn’t happen again.
Security agencies have to have the resources to recruit smart, brave people who will then track down terrorists before they strike. And we should be no more concerned about cost than we were when we were fighting that other axis.