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Virginia GOP should nix the rhetoric, work with Warner on taxes

December 21, 2003 1:13 am

AS EXPECTED, the Republican response to Gov. Mark Warn- er's tax plan has been swift, nasty, and, for the most part, nonconstructive.

Such predictability is sad testimony to how fractious the two-party system in Virginia has become. The value of the two-party system is that it gives voters a choice, provides for the debate of ideas, and offers a subsystem of checks and balances within the legislative branch.

These are all good things. But problems develop when egos, personalities, and closed minds supplant good judgment. Motives are called into question, rhetoric becomes even murkier than usual, and progress stops dead in its tracks.

The governor's new tax plan is far from perfect. He claims he can achieve his premise of easing the tax bite on 65 percent of Virginians by eliminating some taxes and boosting others. He largely ignores the poor while playing into the hands of the Republican opposition.

Under his plan, gone would be the remaining 30 percent of the car tax, reduced by 7.5 percent a year for the next four years. Gone, almost entirely, would be the estate tax on farms and family businesses. Reduced would be the tax on groceries from 4 cents on the dollar to 2.5 cents. Reworked would be the state income-tax system, to shift more of the burden from the lower brackets to the higher ones.

Added would be a penny to the general sales tax on non-food items. Increased would be the tobacco tax on a pack of cigarettes from 2.5 cents per pack of cigarettes to 25 cents. Closed would be some corporate tax loopholes.

Gov. Warner estimates that the state would realize about $500 million a year from these changes--about half the annual cost of the car tax repeal. And he knows how he wants to spend it.

The governor's intention was to give the Republicans much of what he knew they wanted, in hopes of undercutting their arguments against the parts they don't like. It's a good political strategy.

But when the General Assembly comes out swinging in January, he will be pressed to negotiate, and his revenue projections, along with his 65 percent plan, will probably be out the window.

While a Democratic governor could hardly anticipate smooth sailing given the GOP-controlled legislature he is facing, he might have at least hoped for an intelligent opening response.

Instead, the Virginia Republican Party took the decidedly war-mongering step of digging up ex-Gov. Jim Gilmore, its anti-tax poster boy. When the talk turns to taxes, better bring out the rabid dog. It was truly a choice of function over form.

Gilmore called Warner a liar for proposing to increase the sales tax after promising during his campaign not to raise taxes. Civility was never Gilmore's strong suit. The reality is that the world in which Warner campaigned is very different from the one we live in today. Between terrorism and a severe economic downswing, what was feasible as recently as 30 months ago is no longer the case.

Reasonable people know from experience that campaign promises come with an asterisk, given the circumstances and political minefields that elected officials face.

In fact, Gilmore provided Virginians with a couple of semesters of Lying 101 when he ignored his agreement to let the car-tax repeal slide when sinking economic indicators suggested it would be fiscally unsound to continue.

What Gilmore did--and what Virginia's single-term governor rule facilitates--was to initiate a politically popular program knowing he wouldn't be around for the hard part of actually paying for it.

Some observers suggest that Warner's plan also postpones the bill-paying and will do little to smooth out economic hills and valleys. But at least he acknowledges the need to replace some of the revenues that have been given away.

Gilmore refers to Warner's "billion-dollar" tax plan. Conveniently, Gil- more omits any reminder that he's talking about the combined figures of a two-year budget to make it sound worse.

He says taxes take money out of the economy, out of the pockets of hard-working Virginians. But tax cuts leave less money to put into the pockets of state employees, who have forgotten what a pay raise looks like. Do they not contribute to the economy? Do highway construction workers who are paid though state contracts never buy anything for themselves and their families?

I think people understand when a politician must change his stand based on reality and the good of the commonwealth. I think they should object when a politician adheres blindly to a popular idea gone bad.

The Virginia GOP has also attacked the Warner plan as unfair to the poor, because those who don't pay income tax won't get that tax break, but will pay for the sales-tax hike.

Republicans standing up for the poor has the same effect on me as a dose of ipecac. How dare they suggest that an extra 10 cents on a $10 purchase will have nearly the chilling effect of the loss of services the poor, elderly, and infirm have suffered in part because of the $1 billion that Gilmore's car-tax cut takes out of the state government's economy every year.

The straightforward appearance Gov. Warner gives to his plan belies the accounting gymnastics that have gone into it. What Virginians deserve is a plan that doesn't use mathematical gimmicks to meet its objectives. They also deserve a spirited public debate rather than name-calling and knee-jerk, party-line oratory.

Is it any wonder so few people bother to vote?

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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