Is the GOP really the party of fiscal responsibility?
by Peter Tucci, Editor, Daily Caller, April 18, 2012
For decades, the federal budget deficit has been a strong issue for Republicans because voters believe that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to balance budgets. That’s why Mitt Romney is hoping that the large budget deficits of the past five years will weigh heavily on voters’ minds in November, while President Obama is hoping that voters will instead focus on issues like his contraception mandate and the membership policies of Georgia country clubs.
But is it true that Republicans are better than Democrats at balancing budgets? The parties’ federal records offer few clues — partly because it’s hard to draw generalizations about the parties from the behavior of a single government over a short amount of time, and partly because in recent decades neither party has been able to exercise complete control over the federal government for more than a few years at a time.
Analyzing the parties’ state-level behavior is a better way to answer the fiscal responsibility question, for two reasons: 1) the larger sample size (50 states vs. one federal government) makes the data more reliable; and 2) in many of the states, one party has long dominated state government, so it’s easier to assign blame or praise for bad or good policy outcomes.
If the Republican Party is truly the party of fiscal responsibility, you’d expect heavily Republican states like Utah (which has historically had an overwhelmingly Republican legislature) to accumulate less debt than heavily Democratic states like Hawaii (which has historically had an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature).
To see if that’s the case, I used Gallup’s 2011 report on party affiliation by state to create a list of the 12 most Democratic states and the 12 most Republican states. (The 12 most Democratic states are Hawaii, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Delaware, California, New Jersey and Minnesota; the 12 most Republican states are Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Alabama, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota and New Hampshire.) I then looked at how much per capita debt each state has accumulated according to a report from a non-partisan state budget watchdog called State Budget Solutions. The result is presented in the graph below.
It turns out that Republican states really do tend to have less per capita debt than Democratic states. In fact, of the seven states with the least per capita debt, five are among the 12 most Republican: Nebraska (1), Wyoming (2), Montana (5), Alabama (6) and South Dakota (7). The state with the third-lowest per capita debt is Mitch Daniels’ Indiana, which nearly missed being one of the top 12 most Republican states (as did fourth-place Tennessee and eighth-place Oklahoma). With the exception of Vermont (11) and Minnesota (21), all of the 12 heavily blue states have larger-than-average per capita debts. Connecticut has the largest per capita debt of any state, at $5,402 per resident. Hawaii has the second most debt per resident and New Jersey has the third most, though its Republican governor, Chris Christie, is doing his best to solve his state’s pension-fueled budget problems. The average per capita debt of the 12 heavily blue states is $3,022, compared to just $1,190 for their Republican counterparts. So when Republicans say the GOP is the party of fiscal responsibility, they have a point.
Peter Tucci is an editor at The Daily Caller.
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