If there is one thing you can count on about politics, it is that you really can’t count on anything. The nature of the beast is that it is predictably unpredictable. That is both good and bad (sometimes all at the same time), but no matter what things always have potential to get interesting.
Case in point is the race for the State Tax Commissioner. Current appointee Ryan Rauschenberger should have walked away with this office in his pocket; another feather in the war bonnet of the NDGOP. The ND Dem-NPL knew this, and were prepared to sacrifice attorney Jason Astrup who, along with the other Democrat candidates for statewide offices, were supposed to fulfill the role of placeholder for the party so they would not have to endure the embarrassment of not fielding a candidate. After all, it is bad enough they don’t have enough for the legislative seats up for election, and the candidates they arm twisted out west are dropping like flies on a frosty evening.
Then there is the fact that the race for State Tax Commissioner just isn’t supposed to be exciting by it’s very nature. Let’s face it, these guys (and maybe gals the next time) are CPA’s or attorneys whom the framers of our State Constitution decided should be elected instead of appointed by the Governor. The fact that they are elected doesn’t make them any more exciting nor inspirational as elected officials often are (or think they are). No matter the selection process, the job is still generally held by an accountant or a lawyer dealing with tax law. Yawn. Boring.
We elect a lot of officials in this state, maybe too many (a topic perhaps for another post); and the State Tax Commissioner is an example of one that maybe needs to be reconsidered. But the fact remains it is elected, yet how excited can you get the electorate about tax policy anyways? They just want taxes to be as low as they can be for themselves. In addition, this job’s main focus is to carry out what the Legislature passed and Governor signed into law regarding taxes. Honestly they don’t bring a lot to the table otherwise.
Yet, thanks to the recent alcohol issues faced by Rauschenberger (or shall we say the discovery of these issues, because had the accident not have occurred last week we probably would never know the NDGOP candidate was struggling with booze), the election of the State Tax Commissioner has suddenly become arguably the most interesting race in the state this November, surpassing even the one for Agriculture Commissioner. Hey, at least that person has some key inputs on energy development in the state via the Industrial Commission, and represents what was up until very recently the number one industry.
State Tax Commissioner. Election. Interesting. Exciting. None of these words should ever reside together in the same sentence. But thanks to Rauschenberger and his recent struggles with alcoholism, they most certainly do. If it wasn’t so sad this might actually be funny. But it most certainly is not funny.
Because of this latest revelation, the words Democrat, Winning, Statewide Office can be used in the same sentence, without a snicker. Astrup may have a shot, not because he is the best candidate (Rauschenberger definitely does hold the best pedigree for the job), but because his opponent no longer looks like he is a good candidate to hold an office requiring the trust of the public (at least now). That is unfortunate, but it is also reality.
It is also an opportunity, and a good politician never lets one go to waste. Unfortunately, Astrup did not successfully channel his inner Rahm Emmanuel and seize this opportunity that dropped in his lap. Perhaps we need to cut him some slack — he may still be recovering from the shock that came with the realization he may actually win the office he is running from, ‘er I mean for. That has to be hard when you really were not planning many life changes after the November election. After all, when he accepted the nomination it was most likely done with the understanding that he wasn’t really expected by his party to try and actually win.
In addition to bungling his almost-call for Rauschenberger’s resignation, he released the below proposal for tax reform in the state yesterday:
When I read the headline, I have to confess I was pretty excited. Respecting taxpayers is not something elected officials, regardless of party, are known for. That excitement continued when I read the first sentence of the second paragraph about the elimination of all but one tax bracket. “Could he be proposing a true flat tax?” I wondered to myself. After all, how better for a Democrat to distance themselves from the perception that his party sees taxes as a means to punish achievers; than to propose a policy for consideration by the Legislature (remember, they pass it and the Governor signs it into law, which makes the election of the Tax Commissioners office kind of ridiculous) which recognizes that since everyone benefits from government services, everyone should pay a flat percentage of their income for them. This type of taxation could also go a long ways towards forcing the government to live within a budget someday (when we maybe won’t have a surplus), and pay for things government is supposed to pay for as opposed to nice to do things. I digress.
As I read on, my excitement dwindled. Astrup missed his opportunity to define himself as neither Democrat or Republican, but true tax advocate of all citizens. Rather than propose a low tax rate (and we can argue over what that amount would be in another post) that everyone pays on their income, he rolled out the same boring cliche we have come to expect from the left regarding taxes. In essence, as you read between the lines he is asking the “rich” (the definition of which is based in opinion) to carry the load for the rest of everyone else, even though we all benefit from the services and protections offered by the state government (indeed, those at the lower end of the income scale generally benefit more).
Proposing such a policy make sense today, especially in cash fat North Dakota. I do like the idea Rep Scott Louser (R) proposes with a 0% personal income tax rate, as it is clear that with a surplus as large as ours the government is taking too much from everyone. He goes about it the right way in that he proposes setting the rate at zero versus eliminating the personal income tax altogether too. But, in reality if we are truly serious about holding our government accountable for it’s spending, everyone needs skin in the game by paying in. Then the debate can truly center around how much government gets to take from us, and what services are essential to receive in return. Further, we can get out of the divisiveness that tax policy has evolved into; policies that spark jealousy and envy by turning them into weapons to punish those who are more successful than us with, rather than ones to assure essential government operations are funded.
Astrup missed a golden opportunity, brought about by Rauschenberger’s recent troubles, to define himself as neither a Republican or Democrat Tax Commissioner; but instead a true North Dakota State Tax Commissioner. Instead of proposing policies that get our state taxes out of the business of punishment and back into the business of basing funding on what is needed, with everyone pulling a truly fair part of the load; he instead proposed a repackaged version of tired leftist policies focused on spurring resentment towards achievers. That is unfortunate at best and tragic at worst.
Ryan Rauschenberger, through his current troubles with alcohol, has shown he may not be worthy of the public’s trust to hold the office of State Tax Commissioner even if he has the right skills and background. Jason Astrup has shown he has no new ideas other than what has been repackaged for him by the good people at the Kennedy Center (This is ND Dem-NPL headquarters by the way. Contrary to popular belief the party does not rent out a booth at a Perkins) on Divide Avenue in Bismarck. Unfortunately, this leads us to another thing we can count on with politics; too often voters are forced to choose the least worst candidate rather than the better of field. Regardless of who wins in November, it doesn’t appear like the citizens of this state will be gaining anything.