Reporting from Sacramento — One of the first actions that Republican Meg Whitman took upon declaring her candidacy for governor was signing a pledge never to raise taxes — but on Tuesday she added a hedge to that vow.
The candidate suggested that she might consider a tax hike in the event of an extreme natural disaster. It seemed a subtle step back, but among the anti-tax crusaders who have persuaded almost every GOP state officeholder and top-ticket candidate to sign the pledge, there is no hedging allowed.
Whitman's misstep highlights the headaches such absolutist promises can bring, on the campaign trail or in office.
She has made opposition to tax hikes a centerpiece of her campaign against Democratic Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. At a campaign stop Tuesday in Roseville, Whitman was asked whether she would consider raising taxes if a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, rocked the state. There is some precedent: After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, California levied a temporary quarter-cent sales tax for quake relief.
She replied: "In a natural disaster, gosh, that's hard to predict. I mean if there was literally an 8.0 earthquake here and we had no way out, gosh, certainly, I wouldn't want to necessarily rule that out. But under normal set of circumstances, I think raising taxes on businesses and individuals is exactly the wrong thing to do."
The no-new-taxes pledge allows no such wiggle room. Candidates must vow to "oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes." An official Q&A explaining the pledge adds that emergencies offer no exception. "Tax-and-spend politicians often use "emergencies" to justify increasing taxes," according to the document.
"The pledge is clear," said Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform and pledge creator. He characterized Whitman's words as a "misunderstanding."
"I understand getting caught flat-footed," he said. "This happens from time to time if someone asks what if the Russians invade Minnesota…or if the Martians came and blow up Kansas."
Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former GOP official, noted that once a winning candidate takes office, the downside of such pledges is that "sometimes the reality of governing crashes into the language of campaigning."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised not to raise taxes in his 2006 reelection campaign, retreated from that vow amid last year's severe recession. So did several GOP lawmakers who had signed the pledge but helped pass the 2009 state budget, which included temporary tax hikes.
Still, the pledge remains a crucial yardstick used by GOP voters and party activists alike to identify true conservatives in Republican primaries.
"As a political tool, it has proven quite useful," said Tim Hodson, the director of Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University. "As a tool of governance, it is rigid and can be dysfunctional."
Norquist said he intended to follow-up with Whitman's staff to make sure the former EBay executive fully understands the pledge.
He remained confident, he said, because he had her signed promise. "This doesn't keep me up at night," he said.