As county legislators debate the 2003 budget proposed by County Executive Jack Doyle this month, there'll be a lot of discussion about how the cuts Doyle's proposed could hurt various groups of people: abused children, the poor, the disabled, the homeless. But when it comes to discussing a property tax increase to restore some of those cuts, the interests of one special group of people most certainly won't be aired in public: the legislators themselves.
When county lawmakers consider the damage a vote for a tax increase can do to their political careers, their personal interests may very well trump those of everyone else.
When Republican County Legislators Ray Santirocco and George Wiedemer came out of the closet earlier this month with a call to consider a tax increase, the stage was set for a political drama that could play out well into this decade.
The Republicans hold a 16-13 majority in the Legislature. Thus, if all 13 Democratic lawmakers united with Santirocco and Wiedemer behind a tax increase measure, they'd have the majority necessary to pass it.
But, of course, it's not that simple. For one, the Democrats are hardly united on the subject of a tax increase --- or, for that matter, anything else these days. Democratic Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley says the caucus is probably about evenly split on the issue (she has yet to decide herself).
Another factor is that any effort to increase the property tax rate would likely have to have the backing of at least 18 legislators. That's the number necessary to override a veto by Doyle.
The Republican county executive has steadfastly refused to consider a tax increase to close a budget gap that may reach $65 million next year. Doyle hasn't said he would veto a budget that increases taxes, but he's made it pointedly clear it's well within his powers to do so.
"I have a right to veto whatever they do," Doyle told WXXI radio on October 4, a day or so after Santirocco and Wiedemer went public with their interest in raising taxes. "Of course, I wouldn't speculate on what I would do, nor will I speculate on what [the legislators] are going to do. But that's the way it works. I present the budget and it's their decision to adopt a budget."
As Aldersley and some other Democrats see it, it's the Republican legislators' job to increase taxes, because increasing taxes isn't a task the Democrats could accomplish even if they wanted to.
"The Republicans have gotten us into this mess and we Democrats are given no information," she says. "So, while we may want to jump in with some kind of a solution, we're not in a position to do that and we're not in power to do it. It's pretty much going to have to be the Republican side that comes up with whatever solutions it can find."
But the Democrats' hesitation to increase taxes is about more than their ability to get enough votes to do it. It's also about each individual Democrat's ability to get reelected to the Legislature in 2005; or, if term limits prevent them from seeking another term that year, their ability to serve in another public office.
"If you get a bunch of Democrats to vote for a tax increase [necessitated] by the Republicans, then the Republicans use that against them in the next election, it's like miserably failing an IQ test," says Democratic Legislator Jay Ricci.
The Dems "are not going to band together and save the day" without a significant number of Republicans joining them in calling for a tax increase, says Ricci, who's also deferring a decision to support a tax increase until he sees the budget. "Politically speaking, you can stick your neck out only so far."
Ricci has heard there may be as many as eight Republicans willing to support a tax increase; Aldersley's heard rumors of as many as 10.
"The discussion around increasing taxes becomes so toxic that people instinctively shy away from it," says Mayor Bill Johnson, who's not shy about telling Democratic county lawmakers his opinion on such matters. "That's why [county Democrats] are looking for bipartisan cover. It'll become extremely hard for the Republicans to criticize a bipartisan coalition," but "they've got to have more than one or two Republicans."
Dems concerned they'll be criticized in future elections for increasing taxes should consider the fallout from not doing so, Johnson says. "What a terrible legacy for them to have on their records: that they presided over the dismantling of county government."
Monroe County Democratic Party chairman Ted O'Brien is also lending the caucus his advice. "What I'm going to encourage people to do --- and this may sound funny from a political party chair --- but we have to put politics aside and encourage people to act like adults," he says. "Whatever the right thing to do is, [that's] what we've got to do, irrespective of who wins or loses politically."
"It would be tragic to think that political considerations would enter into this debate," says Democratic Legislator Lynda Garner Goldstein. "But if the recent past is any indication, I fear people won't rise above it."