When Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet of the Miami Herald asked Crist about the virtues of the plan, he said, “I think it’s fantastic. Are you kidding me? We don’t have to raise taxes.” Moreover, Crist continued, “we might be able to cut property taxes some more. We have more money for education, so we can increase per-student spending. We can spend more money on our roads and infrastructure. We can provide health care for our people. I mean, it’s remarkable.” Indeed, something is remarkable, namely Crist’s rigid adherence to an ideology more pernicious than orthodox progressivism or conservatism or nudism or anarchoprimitivism. I’m referring, of course, to free-lunchism.
One can argue about the virtues of federal borrowing to stimulate the economy. Because state governments are obligated to balance their budgets, there is a solid case for having Washington offer a temporary countercyclical boost to cash-strapped states. But the notion that the federal stimulus plan gives state governments carte blanche to permanently ratchet up their spending levels while cutting taxes defies logic. Florida’s Constitution requires that the state government can’t use one-time funds, like windfall from privatization or federal stimulus dollars, to pay for more than 3% of recurring expenses.
Incredibly, Crist demanded that Florida use one-time funds to pay for 12% of the state budget. When Republicans in the state legislature took the difficult step of passing a budget that included unpopular spending cuts, Crist turned around and vetoed hundreds of millions in cuts, despite the continuing deterioration of state revenues. It could be that Crist believes that the federal government will simply pass a stimulus plan every year, one that will grow ever larger without consequence to Florida taxpayers. This, of course, can’t possibly be true. As a result, Crist has committed Florida to a fiscal nightmare, one that will lead to draconian tax hikes and spending cuts long after he makes a break for the U.S. Senate or finds some other comfortable sinecure thanks to the good graces of his many wealthy friends.
In fairness, Crist is only the most egregious offender. As Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels noted in The Wall Street Journal in September, the last decade has seen state government spending increase by 6% every year. Dozens of governors of both parties have enthusiastically embraced free-lunchism, with Daniels as one of the rare exceptions. Recognizing that Indiana was on an unsustainable path, Daniels committed the state government to making painful spending cuts, investing in infrastructure and education, and focusing his efforts on the long-term goal of raising household incomes for Hoosiers.
Florida, in contrast, has followed a very different model: After riding an unsustainable building boom, Crist intends to back federal measures like tax credits for home buyers and generous Federal Housing Administration underwriting to prop up still-inflated home values. This is public policy as a Ponzi scheme. And even after free-lunchism proved a spectacular failure over the last decade, whether carried out by the Bush White House or Democrats and Republicans at the state level, Crist seems to have learned nothing.
Incredibly, fiscal conservatives have more to admire in the much-maligned Democratic governors of New Jersey and New York, Jon Corzine and David Paterson, who’ve done far more to cut popular spending programs than Crist. If Corzine and Paterson deserve to be fired, and even the Obama White House seems convinced that Paterson needs to go, that surely doesn’t reflect well on Crist.
But the fact that Crist is such a miserable governor is immaterial to his boosters, who insist on seeing him as a “moderate” running against the “extremist” Marco Rubio. Last week, Joe Klein of Time insisted that Crist is a conservative by any reasonable standard: “He is pro-life, pro-gun, antitax, big on law and order, a foreign policy hawk.” This exercise in box-ticking tells us nothing, however, about how Crist has actually governed. Klein makes a solid point when he notes that conservative activists are often unrealistic about the extent to which the size of government can be reduced in the short term. Yet surely there is something unrealistic about Crist’s “optimistic” combination of gimmicky tax cuts and spending increases.
Marco Rubio is far from flawless. He had a mixed record as a state legislator, and he gives the impression of being a better communicator than policymaker. The real struggle for the soul of the Republican Party isn’t between Crist and Rubio. It is between the free-lunchism and realism. If Rubio turns out to be a truth-telling realist, he will do all Americans, Republicans and Democrats and independents, a tremendous favor by bringing Crist’s political career to an ignominious end.