When Governor Pataki announced in mid-December a huge new health-care program paid for with a whopping $1.6 billion new tax on cigarettes, it was another reminder that New York lacks a real Republican Party. The state's Republicans are true creatures of New York's dysfunctional political culture—mostly opportunistic political insiders, many of whom profit in their private businesses from the lucrative contracts that New York's oversized welfare-state government hands out for everything from construction projects to social services. They've got no interest in ideas, and they're barely distinguishable from the spendthrift state Democrats in their desire to spend public funds. The last thing they want to do is cut spending.
But Republicans should study the results of this past fall's elections in Nassau County, where the party lost control of the 19-seat county legislature for the first time in history. The election's outcome indicates that voters may at last be tiring of profligate politicians—Republican or Democrat. As one leading state Republican warned after Pataki announced his new initiative, "Didn't we learn anything after what happened in Nassau County?" The Nassau election's big issue was the Republican's imposition last summer of a 1 percent real estate transfer tax—needed, party reps argued, to cope with the county's gaping $300 million deficit and a bond rating tottering one level above junk status. Nassau Democrats, perhaps surprisingly, firmly opposed the tax hike. Nassau voters, buckling under crushing taxes already and in no mood to take on an additional tax burden, turned the nine-seat Republican legislative majority into a one-seat Democratic majority.
In Erie County in western New York, though, a different story unfolded this past fall. Democrat-turned-Republican Joel Giambia became county executive, despite the region's long history of solid support for the Democrats. Giambia ran a Ronald Reagan-style campaign that promised to slash property taxes 30 percent, cut spending, and clear away the tangle of regulations that have suffocated economic growth in western New York—especially in blighted Buffalo, Erie County's biggest city—during a period of unparalleled national prosperity. Giambia's pro-growth argument was so compelling that he even won the endorsement of the liberal Buffalo Evening News.
The lessons: if Republicans support lowering taxes, reducing regulations, controlling spending, and nourishing economic growth, they can win elections in New York; if not, let Nassau County serve as a warning.