State politics are compelling many Americans to consider in 1983 a question that is likely to be important nationally in 1984.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan pressed this question: What kind of government do you want? Thirty- three months later, the answer is reasonably clear. The politics of Congress (where the budget cutting is finished for the foreseeable future) and the actions of many state legislatures indicate that the answer is: Americans want a "services government" at least as large as the one they have.
That is not the answer Reagan wanted, but there it is, so a 1984 question may be: Well, all right then, how are you going to pay for it? Consider how that question is vexing five states containing almost one-third of the nation's population.
Having inherited a deficit, Ohio's new Democratic governor, Richard Celeste, has made permanent a "temporary" personal income-tax increase imposed by the Republican who governed for 16 of the preceding 20 years. Celeste has added his own increase, for a two-year increase of 90 percent. The vote was along party lines. Republicans concede the need for new taxes, but prefer different ones, and object to Celeste's spending plans. Ohio is planning to spend 30 percent more in 1984-85 than in 1982-83.
Having inherited a deficit (from a Republican who governed for 13 years), Michigan's new Democratic Gov. James Blanchard has imposed a 38 percent increase in the personal income tax. Only one Republican legislator voted for it.
Texas has not had a tax increase for 12 years. Its new Democratic governor, Mark White (a Republican had governed for four years) promised, as a candidate, not to raise taxes. He also promised substantial enrichments of public services, including a 24 percent pay raise for teachers. He now proposes to raise a two-year total of $1. 7 billion with "sin taxes" (even taxing sinful pinball machines) and five cents more on a gallon of gasoline. The legislature took a look and went home. White may call a special session.
A federal court has compelled California to mail 346,615 state welfare and salary checks even though the state has been without a budget and hence without power to spend since June 30. George Deukmejian, the new Republican governor (after eight Democratic years), campaigned on a promise of no new taxes for four years.
I remember asking him how he would cope with the $1 billion deficit he foresaw. Cut spending, he said. Care to say where? I asked. He said: the Coastal Commission, for example. I remember hoping, for his sake, that the commission has a budget of at least $1 billion. (Its last budget was a smidgen more than $9 million.) He has cut energetically, not even sparing today's sacred sector, education. The Democratic-controlled legislature (with many Republicans concurring) wants to spend more, especially on education, and proposes new taxes.
Last week, Pennsylvania's governor, Richard L. Thornburgh, a Republican in his second term, faced a choice: he could use his line-item veto to balance the budget sent to him, knocking out $1 billion, one dollar in every eight. Or he could veto the whole thing and continue the stalemate with the legislature while 230,000 state welfare and pay checks sat unmailed. He used the item veto.
The Republican-controlled state Senate had given him the new revenues (about $450 million) he requested, but the Democratic-controlled House, which added spending, provided no new revenues, on the peculiar ground that he had asked for too few. The Senate accepted the House version just so something could go to the governor's desk. To concentrate the House's mind, Thornburgh vetoed the House's appropriation for itself. I like his style.
Five summers ago, the nation's rightward swing was announced with a cymbal-crash: California's Proposition 13 cut taxes. Already in 1983, 30 states have raised taxes; at least 17 have raised personal-income or sales taxes.
Last summer, before the recovery was visible, President Reagan won passage of a $98.3 billion tax increase over five years. Last week, in St. Louis, John Glenn was asked if he would support a tax increase to reduce deficits. He said, "We may have to come to that" because projected deficits will require government to borrow about three-quarters of private savings, and even at 6 percent unemployment the deficit would exceed $100 billion.
Reagan can use his veto and run against Congress, but only so far. Voters are learning in their states in 1983 that the question is how-- not whether--to pay for the government they have and intend to keep.