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GETTING A READ on the General Assembly was much easier before the party lines got blurred. These days, as lawmakers prepare to take on Virginia's worst-ever budget crisis, the rules for political stereotyping are out the window.
Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is committed to closing the existing $2 billion hole in the budget without raising taxes. He's taking his cue from last month's referendum on boosting the sales tax in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, which voters from each area soundly rejected. Now, he proposes a budget cut like he's throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the legislature to accept it.
On the other hand, you've got Del. Jim Dillard, a Fairfax Republican, who says it's ludicrous to think the budget gap can be closed without a tax increase, and he's preparing legislation to do just that. He thinks Virginians have felt quite enough pain already.
Sen. John Chichester, the Stafford Republican who, as Finance Committee chairman, is as intimate with Virginia's budget as one can be. It was his standoff with former Gov. Jim Gilmore two years ago over funding for car-tax relief that led to Virginia's unprecedented budget impasse.
Chichester's firsthand knowledge and strong stands on budget issues lend bipartisan confidence to his opinions. As a fiscal conservative, he's reluctant to raise taxes. As a realist, he wanted to hold off on increasing car-tax relief from 47 percent to 70 percent in 2000. Today, he struggles with how to resolve the budget gap, and acknowledges that some sort of revenue enhancement can't be ruled out.
"When I'm told we need to cut more fat, I feel like I'm going to put a dirty sock in their mouth," he told journalists earlier this week at a pre-General Assembly forum sponsored by The Associated Press.
Of course there were the more predictable statements from the forum's panelists.
Sen. Edd Houck, the Spotsylvania Republican and Finance Committee member, called for a rollback of the car-tax relief program from the current 70 percent to the previous plateau of 47 percent. That, of course, would be labeled a tax increase, but he's already on record favoring discussion of tax increases.
Former delegate and newly elected Republican Sen. Jay O'Brien of Northern Virginia, an anti-tax stalwart, said he wouldn't expect the House to pass a tax increase in the next 10 years. He's convinced the gap can be closed with existing revenues by further cutting the budget.
Unfortunately, thinking like that is doing irreparable damage to Virginia. It's time that miserly Virginians--and boy, are there a lot of them--understand that decent government services don't come cheap.
Over the past two years, lawmakers like Chichester have cut through the fat, through the meat, and now they're being told to hack through the bone.
People who think there's always more room to cut must not have anything invested in state services, like a child in school or college or a mentally ill relative. Maybe they couldn't care less about the unemployed, the poverty-stricken, the disabled, or all the frail seniors on fixed incomes.
Maybe they've never been a victim of crime, and don't see the value of the 200 state troopers, who cost $70,000 each just to train and equip, needed to bring Virginia State Police ranks up to the bare minimum.
Perhaps they'd just as soon pave the Chesapeake Bay as save it, and are indifferent about an endangered creature because they personally wouldn't miss it if it were gone.
These people are apparently not embarrassed that although Virginia ranks in the low teens in wealth among the states, it ranks 45th in public-school funding. Hey, as long as we've got a couple of extra bucks in our pockets, who cares if we're sending poorly educated kids into an incredibly competitive world?
Well, woe is me, because I do.
Jean Bankos, president of the Virginia Education Association, calls education funding "the elephant in the room" at the upcoming General Assembly session. Of course, she's biased toward education because somebody has to be.
The General Assembly's own Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, or JLARC, found the state ought to increase education spending by some $560 million a year just to reach a minimum standard.
That students are slowly making progress toward achieving Virginia's Standards of Learning shouldn't be misinterpreted as a validation of current funding levels, but as success in spite of them.
It is the dedication of Virginia's ridiculously underpaid school teachers and administrators, their long hours and out-of-pocket spending on supplies, that help bridge the gap between mediocrity and real improvement.
Virginia's teachers, on average, made $40,000 last year, $3,000 below the national average. Is it acceptable that teachers who are retiring after 35-year careers never even reached the state average? How can we expect to keep decent teachers, especially in math and science, when they could make so much more in the private sector?
Of course teachers need to be held accountable no matter what they make, but who is holding the state accountable when it tries to "attract" new teachers with a starting salary of $28,000?
Those who think Virginia will be just fine without added revenues are refusing to face reality. A hefty increase in the tobacco tax would be a healthy start. A rollback in car-tax relief should also be on the table.
This General Assembly ought to do what's right for Virginia, and that may mean curing the taxaphobia that threatens the quality of life of all but the richest Virginians.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.