In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell has shepherded "painful cuts" in spending through a divided legislature. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie, facing an $11 billion deficit, has used his office's unusually great powers to cut spending way back.
In the process, Christie has taken on the teacher unions. That required some guts. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed ballot propositions to reduce the power of public employee unions. The unions spent something like $100 million -- every dollar ultimately provided by taxpayers -- to drive Schwarzenegger's numbers down and beat the propositions, sending California state government toward insolvency.
That came at a time when surging prosperity seemed likely to continue forever. After losing on the ballot propositions, Schwarzenegger -- like his predecessor Gray Davis -- was unable or unwilling to stop the public employee unions and obedient legislators and local officials from spending every dollar available and many more. Lenders in California and the three other "sand states" -- Nevada, Arizona and Florida -- were busy pumping out the subprime mortgages to uncreditworthy homebuyers that produced the financial crash in 2008. Revenues crashed, and California state government faces something like insolvency.
In today's dire economic climate, Christie seems to be marshalling more voter support than Schwarzenegger was able to in prosperous 2005. He points out that teachers are getting pay raises when most people are not and that they pay zero percent of health insurance premiums. And that the head of the state teachers union makes $550,000 -- all it of derived from taxpayers -- and refused to fire a county union head who wrote a poem calling for Christie's death. Last week, New Jersey voters turned out in large numbers and defeated 260 of 479 local school budgets -- usually 70 percent are approved.
Barack Obama's project of turning the United States into something more like Western Europe has stirred strong opposition and generated much less enthusiasm. What's happening in states like Virginia and New Jersey -- and what happened not so long ago in Canada, Sweden and Finland -- suggests that voters may support spending cuts more than most American politicians and pundits have assumed. And much more than a value-added tax.