Tax Rebels With a Cause

At first glance, Proposition 202--the IRS Elimination Pledge Initiative--looks like the worst kind of amateur, copycat Contract With America drivel.

If passed, the ballot measure would force candidates for federal office to choose between pledging or not pledging to support the elimination of the federal income tax and Internal Revenue Service and creation of a national sales tax. Candidates who sign will have the designation "Signed the IRS Elimination Pledge" next to their names on the ballot.

The effort sounds like it came from a kit you'd order out of the back pages of National Review:

Abolish the IRS in Five Easy Steps and Never Pay Income Taxes Again! Send $19.99 plus shipping and handling to IRS Busters, Far Right Wing, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. Order now and receive ballot initiative language tailored specifically to your state's statutory requirements. For a limited time, you'll also receive a "Don't Blame Me--I Voted for the IRS Elimination Pledge" bumper sticker.

The apparent advantage of the initiative here is that the voters in Congressman Bob Stump's district will know the guy doesn't like the IRS. Gee, what a shock. And what a waste of time and money, burdening the ballot with such crap.

What's the point? Even if all eight members of Arizona's congressional delegation vowed to make abolishing the IRS their number one priority, they'd likely get nowhere. Their constituents would get nothing. Their efforts would register barely a blip on the national radar.

But the national radar is what the IRS Elimination Pledge's creators--many of whom, by the way, likely don't subscribe to National Review--had in mind when they wrote Prop. 202. And they weren't thinking about Ed Pastor and John Shadegg.

More likely, Al Gore and George W. Bush.
The backers of this initiative are no hayseed amateurs. They've set their sights on Arizona's next presidential primary, scheduled for February 2000, the second such race in that year's presidential primary series.

Prop. 202 addresses all federal candidates, including presidential contenders. The theory is that if every primary candidate from both parties is asked to sign the pledge in Arizona, voilà! The national sales tax instantly becomes a significant presidential election issue.

Flat tax. Sales tax. Income tax. You can debate the pros and cons from now until next April 15, and not come any closer to knowing what's best for America. All I know is that Prop. 202 is a brilliant political move, one that could make Arizona the turf where the next candidates for president tackle a major issue, one that could potentially have an impact on that race. And Gore and Bush and John McCain could be doing some heavy sweating over whether to sign.

The top of the pro-Prop. 202 stationery has been wisely decorated with the names of the usual conservative suspects--Republican congressmen Matt Salmon and Bob Stump--but the real brains behind the initiative belong to progressives like former Democratic secretary of state Dick Mahoney and local libertarian activist Jeffrey Singer.

Strange as it sounds, it was the success of Arizona's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, which Mahoney and Singer both backed, that led to the IRS Elimination Pledge.

Jeffrey Singer is a surgeon with a successful practice in Scottsdale. On Wednesdays, Singer's partners play golf. Singer plays politics. He was the "medical spokesman" for the medical marijuana initiative two years ago, and says it was that measure's success, particularly in terms of the national debate it helped spark, that led to the concept behind Prop. 202.

Singer is a board member of the Arizona chapter of the national Citizens for an Alternative Tax System (CATS), which has long advocated the creation of a national sales tax. CATS' members argue that the income tax has become nothing more than a way of handing out corporate welfare to big business in the form of tax breaks, while taking more and more out of the little guy's paycheck, making him the victim of a labyrinthine tax code and an error-prone IRS. An across-the-board sales tax on all goods and services would eliminate favors to special interests, Singer maintains.

Buoyed by the success of the medical marijuana initiative, Singer brought up the idea of launching a tax-related initiative with his board.

Mahoney stepped in with the concept of a pledge, the notion of which is based on an arcane Arizona law. When the state of Arizona was created, its founders passed a law allowing Arizonans to recall federal officeholders. But federal law prohibits a recall, so another law was passed asking candidates for federal office to sign a pledge, promising to abide by a successful recall effort.

To this day, federal candidates are still asked to sign the pledge, although the designation hasn't been listed on the ballot since the 1960s.

Which, Singer and Mahoney figured, leaves room for the words, "Signed the IRS Pledge."

The group "Arizonans for Fair Tax Reform" was created, ballot language drafted, signatures collected. So far, no opposition has surfaced.

"What's not to like?" Singer asks. "It's basically full disclosure on your position on the issue."

For a ballot initiative that has yet to be mentioned in the local press, Prop. 202 has attracted a great deal of attention--and cash.

As of late August, Arizonans for Fair Tax Reform had raised $237,000. Donations have been whopping: investor William Dunn, $50,000; Jeffrey Singer, $25,000; Gordon Cain, CEO of Petro-Chemical, $25,000; Arizona Wholesale Supply Company, $25,000; Del Webb, $5,000; Londen Insurance CEO Jack Londen and his wife, former Arizona Republican party chair Dodie, $11,000.

The Londens aren't the only politicos who've jumped on board. Attorney General Grant Woods serves as the campaign's honorary co-chair, alongside Salmon and Stump. Sam Vagenas, Mahoney's deputy secretary of state, is campaign coordinator. Maricopa County Republican chair Dave Crete and perennial Phoenix City Council candidate Ron Gawlitta are on the steering committee.

Backing from such a broad cross-section of Arizona political activists makes the movement for Prop. 202 a different kind of tax protest. In the past, tax rebels have remained outside extremists who seldom achieve success. But every once in a while, some anti-tax zealots manage to capture the mainstream imagination. Remember the Boston Tea Party?

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443, or online at [email protected]