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Laboratories of Democracy

Tuesday, July 1, 1997

Are you better off now than you were 20 years ago? This is the question conservatives ought to be asking instead of second-guessing Republican strategy in last year's presidential race or grumbling over the incredible shrinking tax cuts in the federal budget deal.

Conservatism's biggest victories of the past 20 years have actually occurred in the states, where popular support for individual liberties, smaller government, and traditional values has grown tremendously since liberalism's heyday in the 1970s. In the first of a series of dispatches from the 50 states, Policy Review monitors a number of political trends that answer the question posed above with a resounding "yes!"

Iowa and Taxes

In 1977, the top rate for state income taxes in Iowa was a whopping 13 percent. Upon the death of a parent, moreover, an Iowan could wind up paying that rate on anything he inherited. A lot has changed since then.

"This is the best year we've ever had," says Jeff Boeyink, the executive director of Iowans for Tax Relief. Iowans have recently been blessed with a 10 percent across-the-board cut in income taxes (the top rate is now 8.98 percent), the elimination of the inheritance tax for lineal descendants, and $21 million in property-tax reduction. These tax cuts add up to $266 million in relief for Iowa taxpayers.

Jerry Bair, the state's revenue and finance director, has worked in the revenue department since 1975. He contends that Iowa taxpayers are much better off today, especially since the state put an end to inflation-driven bracket creep and reformed tax laws to benefit elderly Iowans who live off annuities.

Taxpayers in Iowa have waited a long time for such relief. It was not until Republicans captured the state House of Representatives in 1992 that the legislature passed a law limiting expenditures to 99 percent of the next year's anticipated tax revenues. In other words, the state agreed not only to spend less money than it collected, but also not to spend any unexpected revenue windfall. Within three years, Iowa turned a $400-million deficit into a $400-million surplus.

As the deficit shrank, the state started giving taxpayers some of their own money back: It slashed $100 million from property taxes in 1994, tripled the credit for dependents and expanded the income exemption for pensioners in 1995, and completed the full indexation of income-tax brackets in 1996.

Idaho and the Right to Work

The political campaigns of 1996 highlighted the labor unions' controversial practice of using mandatory dues from their members to support partisan candidates. The larger issue for workers, however, is whether unions should be allowed to force them to become members against their will.

The principle that workers do have the right to join a union if they choose, but ought not to be forced to join as a condition of employment, is known as "right to work." Laws that guarantee employees' right to work are mainly intended to ensure individual freedom in the workplace, but proponents argue that such laws have economic benefits, too.

Right-to-work legislation in Idaho had long been stymied by politics until 1985, when the legislature overrode Governor John Evans's veto and right-to-work became law. Two years later, the state's economy began an economic boom that continues to this day. Idaho's unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in 25 years. Commerce Department statistics show that Idaho's annual growth of 15.4 percent in per-capita personal income was the highest in the nation from 1987 to 1995. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, economic growth in the 21 states that have right-to-work laws has outpaced the rest of the country by 25 percent since 1991.

The Real conservative triumphs of the last 20 years have come in the states.

"Having the right to work has not only meant freedom of choice, it also means Idaho has led the nation in new jobs and income growth in the decade since it became law," says Gary Glenn, an Ada County Commissioner and the former executive director of the Idaho Freedom to Work Committee. Explains James T. Bennett, an economist at George Mason University, "In states without right-to-work laws, high taxes and the high cost of living erode the purchasing power of income." On average, he says, families in states with right-to-work laws are better off.

South Dakota and Abortion

South Dakota is a model for swift action taken to counter the nefarious effects of judicial activism. In 1973, the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade forced the states to legalize all abortions in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy, and to permit them for health reasons in the third trimester. "Not a pleasant occurrence for the people of South Dakota," recalls Jeremiah Murphy, a long-time lobbyist for the Catholic Church, for the state had to forfeit its 74-year-old ban on all abortions. "Any time something becomes legal, it becomes moral" to a lot of people, says Marcella Effertz, a Catholic Diocese official.

But in spite of the legalization of abortion, the state has worked hard to preserve the South Dakota tradition of respect for human life. In the last 20 years, the legislature has adopted resolutions supporting the Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and opposing the Equal Rights Amendment because of their implications for abortion. It has passed laws prohibiting the use of tax money for abortion, and has instituted a 24-hour waiting period for anyone seeking an abortion procedure. This year alone, the legislature passed, by overwhelming margins, a ban on partial-birth abortions and a requirement that minors notify their parents before obtaining the procedure.

Fortunately for countless children and young adults alive in South Dakota today, pro-lifers in the 1970s established crisis-pregnancy centers across the state. These centers have since convinced hundreds of young women with unwanted pregnancies to choose an alternative to abortion.

"[The situation] has definitely gotten better," says Dan Wunrow, the executive director of South Dakota Right to Life. According to Wunrow, his organization's membership has quadrupled in five years and his state usually ranks first or near first on the list of states with the lowest annual number of abortions relative to population.

New York and Rent Control

Living in New York City during the 1970s, I was always astounded by the number of dilapidated and abandoned apartment houses woven into the fabric of Manhattan's pricey real-estate market. Equally shocking were the stories of well-to-do people paying bargain rents to live in the city's trendiest areas.

A recent New York Times Magazine article by writer John Tierney described a rent-regulated building in Manhattan in which rents for two-bedroom apartments range from $300 to $1,600 a month. Tierney (a beneficiary of rent control himself) writes: "Although rent regulation is often defended as essential protection for the poor throughout the city, it disproportionately benefits the middle and upper classes in Manhattan." Such are the consequences of rent control, a system of price regulations on landlords first enacted by the federal government in 1942 to protect the needy and aid returning veterans.

In 1949, states were granted the right to regulate their own rents, and New York began the slow process of deregulating some of its apartments. But after the cost of living rose dramatically in the 1970s, rent control in New York City made a monumental comeback. In 1974, the state legislature regulated previously exempt apartments and reregulated apartments whose price controls had expired.

As economists predicted, landlords could not cover the rising costs of maintaining their property with the low rents their tenants were required to pay, so many of them abandoned their investments or let them slide into ruin. In luxury buildings that contained only a handful of regulated apartments, many of New York's wealthiest found homes intended for middle-class tenants.

In spite of Roe v. Wade, South Dakota has worked hard to preserve its tradition of respect for human life.

This year, the tide is finally turning. Joseph Bruno, the state Senate majority leader and an upstate Republican, is leading the charge to dismantle New York City's Byzantine system of rent regulations, which were scheduled to expire as this issue went to press. "They are the single greatest impediment to creating new housing opportunities for New Yorkers," he says. For this apostasy, he has become the target of personal and political attacks.

Herb London, a former dean at New York University and perhaps Manhattan's lone archconservative, believes rent-control deregulation is the premier issue this year for New York conservatives. At presstime, it looks as if London was right to predict that deregulation for now will not be as sweeping as many conservatives would like: Rent-controlled apartments may be deregulated only when vacated by their current tenants.

But 20 years ago, the climate for this debate simply didn't exist. "Now you've got both liberal economists and conservative economists agreeing that rent control has really stifled New York City's market," says Zenia Mucha, a spokeswoman for Governor George Pataki.

Texas and Guns

It will undoubtedly surprise some readers that Second Amendment rights are even at issue in the Lone Star State. "Texas has a reputation for being a gun-slinging state," explains Dave Burdett, who owns a gun shop in Bryan, Texas, "but in actuality it never was legally a place where you could sling a gun." Wary of Confederate veterans returning home from the Civil War and fomenting trouble, the legislature passed a law in 1871 prohibiting any residents from carrying weapons.

As violent crime has escalated in recent decades, however, so has the desire of private citizens to arm themselves outside the home. But not until 1995 did Governor George W. Bush get the chance to sign a "right-to-carry" bill. The governor's support for the right of citizens to carry concealed weapons in public for self-protection became a key campaign issue during his 1994 race against Ann Richards, who had twice vetoed such bills as governor. Richards and her allies argued that allowing Texans to carry their weapons outside their homes would promote crime. "They haven't had much to turn to and say, 'See, we told you so,' " chuckles Jim Brown, a retired veterinarian and gun-rights activist.

Brown fought successfully in 1988 to ensure that Texans retained their Second Amendment protections no matter where they traveled. For instance, before 1988, a rural Texan with a hunting rifle in the back seat of his car suddenly became an assault-weapon-wielding criminal when he passed through certain cities. Now the legislative chairman of the Texas State Rifle Association, Brown is still waging battle on behalf of gun owners. Two bills before the state legislature this year would expand the 1995 law to redress concessions by the gun-rights lobby to ensure passage, such as age restrictions on the ownership of guns.