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Local boys don't make good in fixing Virginia's budget imbroglio

April 18, 2004 1:09 am

HAVING TWO lawmakers from Stafford County hold positions of power in their respective General Assembly chambers was supposed to give the area a feeling of power and prestige.

Not only was Sen. John Chichester already chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, but Del. Bill Howell became the speaker of the House, making him one of the commonwealth's most influential politicians.

Both Republicans, both gentlemen, both level-headed and prepared to act upon their convictions, the combination had clout written all over it, one's political bent notwithstanding. They could shape Virginia history.

Their accomplishments have been historic, all right, but not in the manner in which we had hoped. These virtual neighbors have been less than neighborly as the assembly has wrestled over how to write a budget that best serves Virginians. Have their egos taken the place of their convictions?

Sessions like this one can happen only when almost all those who can make a difference are wrong from the beginning. An exception is Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, despite standing accused by the anti-tax cult of going back on his campaign promise not to raise taxes. Let's call that criticism a feather in his cap, a badge of honor.

(His "promise" was based on fiscal circumstances that were current in 2000. Those circumstances have changed, to say the least, and the campaign pledge no longer applies. Case closed. Why is that so difficult to understand?)

The governor presented a plan that raised taxes to supply $1 billion over two years in much-needed revenue for state services. He presented his plan as tax reform, designed to reshape the way Virginia collects taxes and how the burden is shared.

Critics questioned his methods and his predictions about who would pay, and who would benefit and by how much. The General Assembly debate should have focused on how to tailor the governor's plan to make it palatable to all.

All, that is, except those who signed no-tax pledges to help them get elected. That is Mistake No. 1. If they don't know by now how counterproductive such pledges are, they need a little more wattage in the bulb. Elected officials need some flexibility to do their jobs well. They shouldn't voluntarily attach themselves to an ideological leash.

Chichester had to know he was setting up a showdown with Speaker Howell when he proposed a budget plan that would generate $2.4 billion in revenues--nearly 2 times the amount in the governor's plan.

That was Mistake No. 2. No matter how valuable such a windfall would be to state services, his plan was, and is, a ludicrous, divisive, pie-in-the-sky proposal that has wasted the assembly's time and tested Virginians' patience. His own colleagues' failure to challenge Chichester's proposal may be a testament to his clout, but also makes them accessories to the farce the session has become.

Chichester is a supposedly wise and experienced politician, but he has given us good reason to doubt that. A savvy politician should know the enemy--especially when the enemy belongs to his own party--and his own county. He should know what is feasible given the political landscape. There is a time when courage must be tempered by wisdom.

But at least he has shown a willingness to negotiate. That can't be said for his chief foe in the House of Delegates, Speaker Howell, who has committed Mistake No. 3: refusing to compromise.

Howell's bizarre way of pursuing the spirit of compromise is to send four of his like-thinking comrades out for a constitutional, so to speak, in order for distasteful legislation to emerge from committee. He has said all along that he won't vote in favor of the compromise plan his colleagues were working so hard to prepare. That's leadership?

Even if his constituents don't get it, the speaker should recognize that taxation is key to the state's ability to attract business, provide quality public- and private-sector jobs, and pay for education, transportation, health care, and myriad other services. No business can thrive if its top priorities are freezing and cutting revenues. Salaries go up, prices go up, so why does it not follow that the legitimate costs of operating government go up as well? Sometimes a robust economy can help absorb that cost. The present economy cannot.

Anti-taxers in the House suggest that anyone who favors a tax increase is "pro-taxation," which is as far off-base as labeling pro-choice adherents "pro-abortion." The taxophobic members of the legislature are so stubborn, so blindly obliged to their out-of-touch philosophy that they can't even recognize when a tax increase is simply the right thing to do by any standard.

Raising the tobacco tax is a must. Those who vote against it should be booted out. They should apply for work at Philip Morris, where they can participate directly in the slaughter. It's a fact that raising the tax on cigarettes will stop young people from picking up the habit and prevent them from dying prematurely. The tax won't hurt Virginia tobacco farmers because the weed they grow doesn't go into cigarettes sold for domestic use.

Think raising the tobacco tax imposes a hardship on smokers? What's a greater hardship than death?

The General Assembly will approve a budget because it must. Why it chooses a path of such inefficiency and embarrassment to get there will be a matter of deep consideration for voters in future legislative elections.





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