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Barletta ignores pitfalls of no-tax-hike pledges

Being a journalist, I have a list of favorite quotes that revolve around politicians and other newsmakers. One of my favorites is that of writer and philosopher George Santayana, who wrote in 1905 in “The Life of Reason,” “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This quote immediately came to mind when I learned that GOP gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta of Luzerne County announced this week that he had signed a pledge on Sept. 6 from a conservative anti-tax group that commits him to oppose tax increases for the time he is in office - possibly as long as eight years.

The pledge, devised by a group which calls itself Americans for Tax Reform, commits Barletta and any others who sign it to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

Barletta and his campaign made a big deal of his signing the pledge, even going the extra mile to say that he was “proud” to do so.

“Lou Barletta has always supported lower taxes to help families and employers make their own decisions, and that will continue when he’s governor,” his campaign spokesman said in a statement.

Look, I hate to pay taxes as much as the next person, but to promise not to raise taxes for four, maybe even eight years without knowing what the budgetary dynamics will be is reckless in the extreme.

And here is where history comes in, which should be a cautionary note for others who are tempted to sign such ill-advised pledges. (It’s too late for Barletta, because he has committed himself so there is no turning back now.)

Barletta would have been well advised to recall the promise by Republican candidate George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention when he accepted his party’s nomination: “Read my lips; no new taxes.”

He was elected president that year partially on the basis of this pledge, but then when there was no alternative to the economic realities that led to a 1990 budget agreement, Bush was forced to eat crow and signed the budget document that included tax increases.

Many political observers believe this cost him re-election in 1992 when he was beaten by Democrat Bill Clinton, who at the time was governor of Arkansas and an underdog and little known outside of his home state.

Of course, this was more than 30 years ago, so maybe Barletta has a short memory. Well, permit me to remind him that he need go back only to 2010 when fellow Republican candidate Tom Corbett decided to run for governor and signed the same pledge.

Corbett was elected in 2011, and his no-tax-increase pledge was an important part of why he emerged victorious. While Corbett technically kept his pledge not to raise any of the big-ticket taxes such as income and sales, he was compelled to sign legislation that nickel-and-dimed us with increased fees on any number of items and a big hike in the gas tax, which ultimately led to Pennsylvania having the highest gasoline tax in the nation for a period of time.

Now, we are third highest at 58.7 cents per gallon, behind California, which has the highest rate at 66.98 cents, and Illinois, 59.56 cents.

Corbett lost his re-election bid in 2015 to a virtual unknown at the time, the current governor, Democrat Tom Wolf. While Corbett believed he had fulfilled the spirit of the no-tax-increase pledge he had signed, some voters disagreed and felt that he had reneged on his promise.

When asked about his commitment to the pledge, Corbett told The Associated Press at the time, “Nobody has the crystal ball that’s going to say, ‘Well, I can say this and not worry about it.’?”

And there, my friends, is the problem - no one can predict with certainty what the future holds, so an iron-clad pledge like this is at best disingenuous. I’ll go even further and call it stupid.

It handcuffs an officeholder, so instead of making decisions based on needs of the constituents and existing financial and economic conditions, he or she is constrained to work around this pledge. While this gimmick may have a short-term effect on the voters who don’t think it through, it will only infuriate them if the pledge is broken.

So I say: Be wary of any no-tax-hike promises. We all want to avoid tax increases, but what if they become unavoidably necessary because of unexpected circumstances? What then?

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.