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General Assembly inertia--with political fratricide for the GOP

May 21, 2006 1:27 am

POLITICAL stalemates like the current one in Rich- mond are usually resolved through compromise. But this time, neither side appears willing to give an inch. Any negotiations of substance have been successfully shielded from the public.

If this showdown does indeed become one for the books, it will be House Speaker Bill Howell, the Stafford Republican, to whom history will be unkind.

He has made debate about the budget or transportation or who has the better plan irrelevant. His sole priority is to win this battle of wills, and prove that he can stand in the way of a tax increase, something he was unable to do do a couple of years ago.

He has reportedly used some serious political arm-twisting to make sure the Republican defectors of 2004 don't attempt a repeat performance.

His stand would be valiant if it weren't so misguided.

Even if Howell were persuaded in his heart of hearts that a separate, dedicated fund for transportation spending would be wise, he has dug himself a hole too deep to climb from and save face.

Here's a little background in case you've managed to ignore this year's embarrassment in Richmond. The General Assembly has failed to approve a budget--something it should have done more than two months ago. The tandem issues are how to pay for upgrading Virginia's ailing transportation infrastructure, and the interchamber squabbling that that pits House Republicans against their counterparts in state Senate.

The realization that this is what happens when Republicans control both Assembly chambers is inescapable. That Virginians were promised strong and unified leadership by these Republican majorities is ironic to the point of being laughable--if this weren't such a serious situation.

Speaker Howell and the House Republicans want to fund transportation with existing money funneled from the state's general fund, collecting nickels and dimes in hopes of getting the job done. They think nothing of drawing on funds budgeted for education, public safety, and health care. Those services have plenty to spare, right?

The Senate, on the other hand, wants a series of tax increases to raise at least $1 billion dedicated to transportation--money that would actually be there without needing to squeeze blood from those other turnips.

Which plan do you think would actually work? (Here's a hint: You are experiencing the success of the House transportation funding strategy every day on the roads.)

With so many federal tax dollars lost to tax cuts, and the rest going to Iraq and the Gulf Coast, Virginians must be prepared to help themselves.

It's easy to label people tax-and-spend liberals when they're willing to pay a buck to get something accomplished. If that's the price of progress, fine.

It's those who think the status quo is good enough--that we can get by on the same level of revenues as the cost of everything rises around us--who have to explain the consequences of their taxophobia.

House Republicans point to a state surplus, resulting from the 2004 tax increase, as evidence that the funds necessary for transportation are already there, and that new taxes are unnecessary.

But in reality there is no surplus--these are merely funds left over after the state budget has inadequately funded secondary and higher education, environmental issues such as the Chesapeake Bay, and just about every line item devoted to the disabled and less fortunate.

How can Virginia have a budget surplus, for example, when there are still thousands of Virginians living without indoor plumbing?

According to a survey based on 2005 figures, the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit fiscal-policy research group, Virginia ranks 41st among the 50 states in local/state tax burden as a percentage of per capita income--well below the national average. Maryland ranks 19th, West Virginia 21st, and North Carolina 23rd--all right around the national average.

In 2003, before the $1.5 billion tax increase of 2004 took effect, Virginia ranked 38th. So the current burden is less now, in relative terms, than it was before the record-setting tax increase.

Some will argue that this means only that everyone must be overtaxed--part of a vast left-wing conspiracy, I suppose. These figures from the Tax Foundation (the Tax Freedom Day people), are gathered from the U.S. Commerce Department and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

I am no fortune teller, but I predict that after this column appears in the newspaper, I will get e-mails from people saying, "If you like taxes so much, why don't you pay mine?" Well, har, har, I don't want to pay your taxes. But I am willing to pay my share if it means my kids' teachers (or your kids' teachers) can focus on teaching rather than on whether they can afford the new rent increase or their resume copying costs. I'm willing to pay my share if it means that the fish and other creatures in the Chesapeake Bay are plentiful and safe to eat.

And, of course, I'm willing to pay my share if it means I can get from Point A to Point B without having to leave an hour early.

It is irritating that voters in the Fredericksburg area habitually elect representatives committed to nothing but protecting cheapskates who are unwilling to spend a few extra dollars for the good of the community as a whole.

What should we expect when for decades we ignore congested and deteriorating highways until they hinder commerce and threaten public safety?

If delegates are reluctant to spend serious money on transportation because they don't trust Department of Transportation officials to manage it properly, then they should deal with that. But that's no reason to punish Virginia's motorists and others who travel here.

Some Senate Republicans are thinking, albeit optimistically, that if they decide to cave in on the budget they'll get credit for ending the stalemate, while their House colleagues will be blamed for the hours Virginians continue to spend stuck in traffic.

But those drivers won't be howling--defined as "wailing cries of pain, anger, or grief"--they'll be "Howelling."

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

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.