Results of the recent primary elections in which an unprecedented number of incumbent politicians were flung aside to make way for new blood were music to this old skeptic's ears.
Last week I called for the ouster of any state legislator not committed to wholesale property tax reform. I had hoped, with little faith, that folks would turn out in record numbers and thereby break the logjam on school funding. Needless to say, they didn't. Even so, fear of the alienated voter may yet produce the desired effect on school taxes.
Instead the usual folks went to the polls and snuffed out incumbents who had voted, or who were connected, to the pay raise and perks they had given themselves in the middle of that now notorious night. Republican voters went after their own in the primary: two leaders in the State House were ejected at the hands of relative unknowns. Thirteen or so lesser mortals across the state endured the same fate. Gib Armstrong, a prominent political presence in the western reaches of Ledger land, went down to a complete novice.
This really was a case of folks being as "mad as hell" and acting on their anger to great effect. The pay raise debacle, by which lawmakers granted themselves increases of anywhere between 16 and 50 percent last winter, was sufficient catalyst to induce GOP stalwarts to rear up and insist they weren't going "to take it any more." Pundits and poll-takers regard last week's upsets as marking the biggest sea change in the state's modern political history.
The primary results are a clarion call. The supposed inviolability of incumbency is no more. Politicians no longer have the surety, whatever they do, or don't do, that they are a shoo-in come the next ballot. It was this belief that elections were mere hurdles to maintain job security that voters rebuffed. The pay raise simply ignited a long-smoldering fire.
The pay raise was easily understood. Lawmakers gave themselves raises no working stiff was getting, playing fast and loose with hard-earned tax dollars. Doesn't get much simpler. Reaction: Throw the bums out! Property taxes, however, are much more complicated. Can the complexities of this decades-old problem be encapsulated in such a way as to inspire the same response as did the pay hike?
There are just so many divergent interests at play. Country is pitted against city. Seniors vie with young marrieds for their respective piece of the tax collector's pie. Rich districts fortify their position so as to protect their privilege and go on spending twice the state average in per pupil spending. Meanwhile, poor districts struggle to meet basic ends with less than basic means. It is the ceaseless shuffling and realignment of these contending perspectives, and the coalitions that form out of them, that has stymied action on property taxes for three decades.
Is the unspoken verdict of the trial by primary that time has finally run out on the legislature's abortive efforts to enact property tax reform? We return to the realm of hope, but many who make their living analyzing state politics seem to think so. The thinking is that their rediscovered vulnerability will induce lawmakers, facing a general election in a few months, to get down to the business of resolving the property tax issue.
But how much can a lame duck legislature get done? Should we pin our hopes on the influx of novice lawmakers? Or is this a case of not being careful enough about what you wish for? Sure I wanted an upset at the primaries. But are the new guys any more likely than their predecessors to set aside their narrow sectarianism and act in the interest of the common good.
Probably not, suggest state political pundits. The new crop of would-be legislators are mostly dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. They are even less inclined to compromise with the likes of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell than the GOP machine politicians they're destined to supplant. In fact the deal-making inclinations of the current bunch was a motivating factor in the electoral surge to see them ousted.
So while the state has taken two steps forward in reasserting the strength of the people in the democratic process, it may well have retreated from its ability to bring about the property tax reform most folks so fervently desire. The law of unintended consequences may have its way yet again. But there remains that brief glimmer of hope that, new or old, legislators will do their democratic duty and resolve the property tax issue. In keeping with the outcome of the primaries, it's what the vast majority of us want.
Tav Murray lives in Christiana. His e-mail address is email@example.com.