The Sales Tax and Chafee's First 100 Days

I've got a cover story in today's Phoenix about Governor Lincoln Chafee's first 100 days. I was struck, in reporting this piece, on the divide between Chafee's conciliatory approach - work with the unions, pursue a sales tax expansion over steep cuts, try to woo the legislature - and the more hard-line approach of other governors: high-profile Republicans like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, yes, but even Democrats like New York's Andrew Cuomo.

Chafee's approach might seem out of step with the moment - that helps to explain his low poll numbers - but he makes an interesting case for long-term success: if the economy improves, he suggests, and he hasn't eviscerated services, the state will be better off - and he'll be well-positioned to win re-election.

Well, Chafee's short- and long-term plans took a blow after the Phoenix's deadline yesterday, when House Speaker Gordon Fox announced his opposition to the governor's sales tax plan.

The Speaker's position is, in large part, a reflection of deep public opposition to the governor's proposal. But it also underscores the challenge any governor faces in attempting to impose long-term thinking on the legislature. The governor doesn't face re-election until 2014, but members of the General Assembly are up next year - making a vote for an unpopular sales tax expansion fraught with risk. Chafee, himself, acknowledged this problem in a recent interview in his office.

It's worth noting, though, that while Speaker Fox has declared his opposition to the present sales tax plan - and while his spokesman told me this morning that Fox "doesn't want to tax his way out of this situation" - the top dog in the House has not explicitly ruled out a sales tax expansion of some kind.

Chafee's attempt to tax certain items, like home heating oil, clearly won't go anywhere. And the governor's two-tiered approach - lowering the sales tax from 7 to 6 percent and expanding the array of taxed goods, while adding a separate 1 percent tax for other, heretofore untaxed items - seems dead.

But there is still a glimmer of hope, perhaps, for something simpler and more modest: maybe a lowering from 7 to 6 percent and a shorter list of newly taxed items. Even that, though, will be a tough sell.


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