Tax Foe Renews Attack on National Governors Association

A maverick anti-tax group is once again prodding governors to pull out of the National Governors Association, arguing that states should not spend taxpayers' dollars on an organization that it says lobbies for higher taxes, bigger government and other "liberal" causes.

Grover G. Norquist, president of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, told Stateline.org he expects at least six Republican governors to bolt from the NGA after Idaho Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's term as NGA chairman ends this summer. NGA rotates its chairmanships between Republicans and Democrats. Kempthorne will turn over the reins to Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) at the conclusion of the association's annual summer meeting, which will take place in Seattle July 17-19.

Now, as states work on their budgets, Norquist said he and other conservative groups are reminding governors that as they try to cut budgets, the NGA is a good place to start. "The test of whether somebody is really trying to rein in spending ... is if they are funding the NGA," Norquist said. "If you're paying money to the NGA, you're not tight on the budget."

Norquist and his allies want governors to follow the lead of Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California who aren't paying dues to the NGA and of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas who pulled out of NGA completely, according to an April 19 ATR letter to governors. Spokespersons for Pawlenty and Perry both said the decision to withhold dues was strictly due to budget constraints, not NGA policy.

The amount a state pays in NGA dues depends on a state's size and other factors. Typically annual dues range between $20,000 and $163,000. NGA's annual budget is between $14 million and $15 million, of which $4 million comes from state dues. NGA's Center for Best Practices gets its funds from federal grants and private foundations.

As NGA chair, Idaho Gov. Kempthorne has spent the past year trying to smooth tensions and make the organization more bipartisan. Several conservative Republican governors threatened to leave the organization in 2003 after the NGA lobbied for a $20 billion federal Medicaid bailout, which some conservatives said ran counter to their notion of limited government.

"NGA can be and should be a very effective tool and a powerful tool in Washington to get the collective concerns of governors heard," said Mark Snider, spokesman for Gov. Kempthorne.

Republican Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also is an NGA supporter. "[T]he NGA remains a valuable, cost-effective asset for those governors who avail themselves of its resources," Huckabee wrote in a 2003 letter to Norquist, rejecting a previous call from the tax opponent to drop out of NGA.

NGA Executive Director Raymond C. Scheppach said criticizing NGA is not anything new. In years past, liberal groups had admonished the NGA for not doing more to expand health care. But Scheppach dismissed conservatives' claim that NGA lobbies for liberal causes. "We may be pushing for more money for highways, more federal dollars for Medicaid. Most of our policies are federalism, which is a relatively conservative approach," he told Stateline.org.

NGA policy is that all governors are NGA members, regardless of whether they pay. "We've had different states over time that had trouble paying. Generally, if they don't pay for a couple of years, they eventually do come back in," Scheppach said.

Critics of NGA argue that it should not try to walk the tightrope of being a consensus organization when its members have vastly different political views. The Democrats and Republicans each have their own governors' associations, and the lobbying should be left to them, said Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy of the Cato Institute. He said groups such as the National Conference of State Legislatures do a better job of providing useful reports for policy-makers without the partisan lobbying.

Other groups that support Norquist's anti-NGA campaign include Beacon Hill Institute, Hudson Institute, Independent Women's Forum and Free Congress Foundation.

Thad Beyle, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it would be a mistake to do away with the NGA. "The NGA helps governors of all parties try to be better governors," according to Beyle, who worked for the NGA in the mid-1970s.

Robert Behn, a faculty chair at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy's School of Government, called ATR's recent letter "a brilliant political ploy" because it gets people talking not only about NGA but also about Norquist's conservative movement. Even if the campaign results in a "nasty dustup" at the NGA, Behn said NGA -- or an organization like it -- always will exist. "Norquist knows how to play the game," Behn said.