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Nation's governor candidates vague on deficits

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CHRISTOPHER WILLS | October 31, 2010 03:30 PM EST | AP

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CHICAGO — The next governor of Illinois will walk into office and find himself staring at a budget deficit that could top $15 billion. In California, the hole will be $12 billion. In larger-than-life Texas, the two-year total is $18 billion or more.

Faced with such enormous problems, the candidates for governor in those states and many others are playing a tricky political game: They promise to erase the paralyzing deficits but often avoid the painful details of what it will take to accomplish.

In Illinois, for instance, Republican candidate Bill Brady readily acknowledges he doesn't have a plan. He says he will conduct an audit once he's in office and then figure out what to do.

Whatever he comes up with, Brady promises it will solve the deficit in one year, will not involve raising any taxes and will not harm vital state services. He cannot name even one example of how the people of Illinois would be asked to sacrifice something to close the budget gap.

California Democrat Jerry Brown has made only one specific budget pledge – to cut the governor's office by up to $3 million. As to the other 99.9 percent of the deficit, he promises to bring legislators together after the election, then "take it on the road" to figure out what the public wants.

Both candidates for Nevada governor accuse one another of misleading voters. In a recent debate, Democrat Rory Reid mockingly held up a copy of what he said was Republican Brian Sandoval's budget plan – a blank sheet of paper.

Jonathan Williams, director of tax and fiscal policy at the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council, said candidates mostly stick to vague comments rather than "put their heads out and get them chopped off."

"This is toxic ground for candidates, whether you're talking about tax increases or cutting services," Williams said.

There's no question that most of the 37 governors chosen in Tuesday's elections will face some tough decisions.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported recently that 39 states have projected gaps totaling $112 billion in the coming fiscal year. Once the remaining states weigh in, the total deficit could reach $140 billion, the center said.

And that's after most states already have cut spending or raised taxes to deal with deficits this year and last.

"All the low-hanging fruit has been taken, which only leaves more difficult choices for policymakers," said Arturo Perez, fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One reason the choices are so difficult is that voters seem to object to every option.

A recent poll of Illinois voters by Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Institute found that 57 percent felt the state had plenty of money and should close its budget deficit through spending cuts. But for every possible cut the poll mentioned, a majority of voters were opposed. About 8 out of 10, for instance, said no to cutting education, public safety or aid to people with disabilities.

Ralph Martire, head of Illinois' liberal-leaning Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, blamed the contradictions on a "mutually reinforcing problem."

Politicians promise more services but won't raise taxes to pay for them, Martire said. They depend on budget games and shortcuts instead and wind up blowing holes in the budget. Voters then get used to the idea that they can have services without any pain, and they reject politicians who say otherwise.

"That's nonsense, but they believe it because that's the track record. Eventually, you run out of those games you can play," Martire said.

Some candidates are less vague than others.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has proposed increasing the income tax rate by one-third, to 4 percent. That would generate about $2.8 billion a year.

And the rest of the deficit? Quinn promises more budget cuts, a better economy and more federal aid – but can't say where he would cut. He also ignores evidence the economy is growing slowly, if at all, and glosses over the fact that federal stimulus money is ending.

Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton wants to raise taxes on the state's wealthiest people to 10.95 percent, up from 7.85 percent now. But he acknowledges that won't close the state's $5.8 billion, two-year deficit, and Dayton is vague about what else he would do to solve the problem.

Even more candidates want to cut taxes instead of raise them, on the theory that this will spur economic activity and ultimately produce more money for the state. Various tax cuts have been proposed in California, Illinois, Michigan and Oregon.

If those tax cuts did ultimately improve the economy, it would take time. In the short term, the states would have less money to provide services, a fact the candidates tend to avoid.

Candidates offer a long list of explanations for their lack of detail.

Illinois' Brady, for instance, claims the Democratic incumbent is hiding details about state spending, so he can't tell what will need to be done to fix the budget. Brady has never provided any evidence for this claim.

In Texas, Republican incumbent Rick Perry says he's waiting for updated revenue estimates in January. Democratic challenger Bill White says he doesn't want to complicate future negotiations with legislative leaders by staking out a position now.

Budget experts don't buy such explanations.

"They're just focused on winning the election," Martire said. "Actually governing – they'll jump off that bridge when they reach it."

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Associated Press writers Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., and April Castro in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.