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The courage to raise taxes

By Peter J. Lynch
web posted April 26, 2004

On October 21, 2001, the Washington Post endorsed Democratic candidate Mark Warner in the Virginia gubernatorial race. The editorial that bestowed the paper's seal of approval claimed that Warner "has shown more courage and more responsibility in his approach to state finances" than his Republican opponent, Attorney General Mark Earley.

The savvy political veterans at the Post -- unlike the gullible Virginia voters -- saw through Warner's anti-tax rhetoric. They knew Warner intended to courageously and responsibly . . . raise taxes. Of course, while campaigning Warner repeatedly denied that he would hike up tax rates to meet budget shortfalls. A multi-millionaire, he made effective use of his business background and portrayed himself as a social moderate, focused on the need to improve education and roads, two issues of pressing concern to his native northern Virginia, a part of the state that is affluent, booming and liberal.

Mark Warner
Warner

Warner went on to win the election handily. The Post, for its part, has maintained its loyalty during the first two years of his term, and the governor has not disappointed. Undeterred by the failure of sales tax referenda in northern Virginia and the Tidewater that he (and his colleagues at the Post) backed in November 2002, Warner has unveiled the "Commonwealth of Opportunity Plan," a tax "reform" package for 2004. The plan calls for lower income tax rates for "most," while jacking up the rate for the wealthiest Virginians. It would also boost the tax on cigarettes, and increase the overall sales tax rate to 5.5 percent, while cutting the food tax by 1.5 cents on the dollar.

When all is said and done, Warner claims his plan will raise $1 billion in revenue. Although Republicans control both the State House and Senate, a number of Republicans in both houses have caved under intense pressure from Warner and voiced support for his plan. Some Republicans in the Senate, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, are calling for even more taxes than the Democratic Governor.

Virginia taxpayers' fears were heightened on Tuesday, April 13, when the House of Delegates passed a compromise version of Mark Warner's tax plan, thanks in no small part to 17 "courageous" Republicans. The bill, the innocuous-sounding "Tax Reform Compromise Act of 2004," contains a mere $750 million in tax increases, and now goes to the state Senate, which opposes it on the grounds that it does not include enough of a tax raise. Nevertheless, it is now almost certain that at some point in the near future the state government will increase the tribute its subjects must send to Richmond.

Predictably, the Post has weighed in with a series of articles, punctuated by the occasional dissent, promoting the Governor's plan over all others and lionizing the pro-tax Republican renegades. Perhaps the best example of these commentaries was published in the April 4 Outlook section of the paper by Quentin Kidd, a government professor at Christopher Newport University. The piece, entitled "The Virginia GOP's Responsibility Gap," chided Virginia Republicans opposed to the Governor for their immature obstinacy, comparing them to adolescents "fighting for respect but struggling with responsibility." Apparently, the desire to decide on your own how to spend the money you earn is immature in Dr. Kidd's eyes. Since the effort, via referendum, to get the voters to increase their own taxes failed, Kidd advises lawmakers in Richmond "to bite the bullet" and ram a tax hike down their uncooperative throats. After all, it is the duty of the state to keep people "healthy, safe and well-educated," whether they like it or not, according to liberals like Dr. Kidd.

Naturally, Kidd is too tactful to accuse Virginia voters of immaturity; it is much easier to attack the coterie of uncompromising conservatives who speak for them. Many of these legislators have formally pledged never to vote for new taxes, and they intend to honor that promise. The temerity displayed by these audacious Republicans galls the professor so that he writes "unless the Republicans grow up soon, the voters may decide they aren't responsible enough to govern." Surprisingly, a little research revealed that Dr. Kidd might not really have the Virginia GOP's best interests in mind after all.

For not only is he a faculty member at state-sponsored Christopher Newport University, but also a member of the Virginia Commission for National and Community Service, appointed by none other than Governor Mark Warner. The Post, however, did not see fit to reveal the professor's ties to the governor, presenting him instead as an unbiased observer peering down from his ivory tower and blessing the great unwashed of Virginia with his scholarly insight. The fact that the Washington Post concealed Kidd's link to the governor shows to what lengths it will go to help its man extract as much revenue as possible from reluctant Virginians.

Governor Warner is on the record saying "Virginians want their elected leaders in Richmond to solve problems instead of passing them on to future governors and future generations." It is touching that Governor Mark Warner and his allies like the Washington Post and Quentin Kidd have such concern for future Virginians. If only they would show some for today's taxpayers.

This Peter J. Lynch's first contribution to Enter Stage Right. (c) 2004

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