The time to vote on the budget is coming up, and the drumbeat for Republicans to vote for taxes is getting louder. We cannot, Republicans are told, balance this budget without a “balanced” approach (a euphemism for increasing taxes). I find the word “balanced” somewhat amusing, because when revenues were pouring in, there was not balance between spending increases and tax rate reductions. Nope, it is just spend and spend, and then when we run out of money, it’s “oops, now we need tax rate increases.” That, of course, is the Democrats concept of “balance.”
That being said, lest any Republicans be tempted to take the tax rate increase road, let me tell a story. If there is any problem with term limits, it is that these stories get lost in the perennial turnover of personnel, and history gets revised by the ruling class, while the lessons of the past are lost in the memories of legislators long gone from the political scene.
My first year in the Legislature was an interesting one. We were the first class to get elected knowing we were subject to term limits, and there were a number of legislative characters who had been on the scene for a number of years. Any number of Legislators were around to talk about what had happened in the past, and the lessons learned. I used to love the stories, and tried to spend as much time as I could learning them. At the time, the battle of the moment was the fight between Republicans. Pete Wilson was then Governor, and the fight over raising tax rates in 1991 defined the division within the Republican caucus.
I was elected based on my promise to never raise taxes, as was just about every other member of the caucus. One member, who my conservative friends used to talk about was Bob Frazzee. He was a quiet fellow, never talked in caucus, and rarely interacted with the members (or at least it was so when I was there). I was regaled with stories about his primary, his promises not to raise taxes, and how he sold out his constituents in 1991. It was an example, I was told, about how Sacramento could corrupt a person. He was seduced by power, I was told, and Pete Wilson promised him lots of things. I never knew what he was promised, and being a freshman, I used to just shake my head. Another story of a good guy gone bad over power.
Then one day, at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, I was sitting next to Bob at a tax policy seminar. When it was done, Bob began talking to me. It was an unsolicited discussion. Bob had always been quiet, and I didn’t wish to intrude, but he started talking. What he told me was enlightening.
He still believed, he said, in lower taxes and smaller government. He was aware of what people said about him selling out his principles in the 1991 budget deal, and it hurt him deeply. He did it because Pete Wilson was his friend, and he was told it had to be done. It was the worst decision he had ever made, he said, and it completely ruined his time in the Legislature. It doesn’t matter what good he did from time forward, he said, that decision defined his time in the Legislature, and not in a good way. He told me then he was not going to run for reelection in 1994. Being in the Legislature was just not fun anymore.
It was a teaching moment for me. The decisions Legislators make impact them personally and politically. Bob would have won reelection if he had run. There wasn’t a drumbeat to remove him. He had, however, lost the inspiration that led him to politics. He lost the will to participate, based on that one decision.
I made over 20,000 voting decisions after that discussions, but Bob’s words never left me. I never wanted to feel the regret over a decision I made the way Bob felt about that decision. He wasn’t worried about constituents or politics or reelection. He regretted his decision because it went against his core principles, and that haunted him.
As the Republican Legislators are faced with the decision over the budget, it is worth remembering Bob Frazzee. If the politics of the decision don’t impact you, the personal impact will. It is not about how others will remember you, everybody will forget your name the moment you lose the vote. Trust me, I know. However, you will remember what you did, and it will haunt you for many years to come.