Opinion | Republicans found something they love even more than tax cuts

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During the Trump years, the GOP kept its eyes on the prize. Republican politicians seemed willing to overlook their standard-bearer’s nest-feathering and political shakedowns. They shunted aside their professed devotion to free trade, free speech, low deficits and family values, all in pursuit of a single goal: tax cuts.

Or, so I and other pundits surmised at the time.

Today, however, tax cuts no longer appear to be the GOP’s top priority. Recent events in Florida suggest Republicans have made room in their hearts — and their policy agenda — for an even higher objective: the culture wars.

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Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) decided to exact retribution after the corporate parent of Disney World opposed a state law prohibiting classroom discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation (nicknamed the “don’t say gay” law). He called on Florida legislators to dissolve Disney’s special self-governance district, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This nearly 55-year-old arrangement has allowed Disney to build more or less as it saw fit, so long as it did so in accordance with state and federal laws. The company also paid for road maintenance, water treatment, fire and rescue, and other public services throughout the nearly 40-square-mile area.

With the dissolution of Reedy Creek’s special status set to take effect in June 2023, Disney will lose some control over building and services around its properties. It might be more complicated to get potholes fixed, for instance. That’s the punishment DeSantis and Republican lawmakers intended. But the GOP action has another, unintended consequence: It will dump a huge new financial burden on Orange and Osceola counties, where the special district is situated.

These counties are expected to inherit Reedy Creek’s debt obligations and will have to cover the cost of the $163 million the company has been paying annually to fund those public services. Orange County’s tax collector has said he expects property taxes would need to rise 20 to 25 percent to foot the bill.

In other words: DeSantis has decided to raise taxes on regular Floridians in order to duke it out with Mickey Mouse.

Some conservatives are cheering on the Florida pols. Fox News anchors and right-wing think-tankers have urged more Republican policymakers nationwide to follow DeSantis’s example and use state power to crush political enemies.

This, of course, contradicts their longtime aversion to Big Government and to having politicians — or anything other than free markets — choose “winners and losers.” Perhaps more significantly, it is a betrayal of their long-standing message to voters: low taxes uber alles.

Maybe the GOP has proved more flexible this time around because of who will pay the cost of their anti-Disney crusade. (Orange and Osceola counties are heavily Democratic.)

But other Republican politicians are also willing to endorse higher taxes when it suits their political narrative, even when those higher taxes might befall their own base.

Consider the plans proposed by another Floridian, Sen. Rick Scott (R), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (and DeSantis’s predecessor as governor).

Scott has said that the federal government should require every American to pay at least some minimum amount of federal income taxes. Given that roughly half of Americans pay no federal income taxes, that would require raising taxes on … roughly half of all Americans. Scott couched this proposal in the language of moochers, takers and freeloaders, with culture-war rhetoric dating to the welfare-queen references of the Reagan era. No matter that most of those who’d be affected already contribute to federal and state coffers through other taxes, such as payroll and excise taxes.

Scott’s proposal, if taken literally, would raise taxes not only on low- and moderate-income workers but also on millions of retirees. More than half of those 65 and older currently pay no federal income tax, the Tax Policy Center estimates.

Lots of those seniors, by the way, Republican vote.

To be fair, Scott has wavered on this particular element of his plan. But in other contexts, GOP politicians have lately seemed to care little about inflicting economic pain upon their own voters, if doing so can meet some other culture-war objective.

Consider how, over in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) deliberately snarled commercial traffic at the border this month, allegedly to root out immigrants crossing the border illegally. His “enhanced” truck inspections didn’t catch a single unauthorized migrant, or an ounce of drugs. The slowdowns did, however, cost his state’s consumers and businesses roughly $4.2 billion, according to an estimate from a Texas-based economic analysis group, including through spoiled produce.

Between high inflation and rising recession risks, the US economy faces serious challenges. This should afford Republicans ample opportunity to offer voters some sort of pro-growth economic agenda. It’s telling that, instead, GOP presidential hopefuls are focusing their firepower on Mickey Mouse and Mexican fruit.

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