How to turn a Red State Blue
How to Turn a Red State Blue
February 23, 2006; Page A16
If you think Republicans on Capitol Hill have troubles, take a look at Virginia, where GOP lawmakers are busy writing an instruction manual on how to become a minority party.
Republicans in that ostensibly "red" Southern state got their clocks cleaned in November's elections after they refused to take a coherent stand on taxes, and Democrat Tim Kaine squeezed to their right on pocketbook issues. As GOP state senator Ken Cuccinelli explained, "We ran on a message of almost being for tax cuts, almost for smaller government, almost for protecting Second Amendment rights, and almost being pro-life. As a result, the voters almost came out and voted for us."
And they apparently have learned nothing from that rout. When the legislature reconvened last month, the first proposal from the majority Republicans in the state senate was to endorse a $1 billion tax hike for roads and transit projects -- the second huge tax increase in two years. The GOP plan would increase auto fees, the gas and diesel tax, and even taxes on batteries and tires. This is the same party that last won the governorship under Jim Gilmore in 1997 promising to abolish the very car taxes they now want to increase.
Last week the senators floated another tax plan that is so bizarre and complicated it has made them a laughing stock. This scheme would raise the gas tax by 5%, but the sponsors insist that "no one would have to pay the tax if they didn't want to," because motorists could get a rebate at the end of the year if they keep shoeboxes full of tiny scraps of service station receipts. This would add immeasurably to the joys of April 15.
These tax-hike proposals keep coming despite a state revenue office report that Virginia now has a $2 billion biennial budget surplus. As a high-tech state, Virginia has been a huge beneficiary of the expansion spurred by the Bush investment tax cuts. But the entrenched senate Republicans -- many of whom have been fixtures in the capital of Richmond for decades -- want to spend the tax windfall and then some.
A Virginia Institute for Public Policy study notes that, over the past decade, the state budget has swollen at twice the rate of inflation plus population growth in the state. That's an $11 billion bonanza for state agencies, or about $500 more spending annually per Virginian. It's true that roads have been neglected during these high-spending years, causing some of the worst pockets of traffic gridlock in the country. But that's because state pols spent like crazy on social services and schools -- though student achievement tests show virtually no gains.
Only 18 months ago this same senate gang rammed through a $1.5 billion sales tax increase, even after 55% of the voters had defeated the same tax scheme when it was a ballot initiative a year before. The original senate Republican tax plan was so supersized that even then-Democratic Governor Mark Warner, who openly promoted higher taxes only after he'd won election in 2001, denounced the GOP plan as too heavy a burden. In short, this is a state GOP suffering from a severe identity crisis.
Meanwhile, property taxes are rising and clueless Republicans haven't lifted a finger to cap assessments. Thanks to a housing boom in Northern Virginia, state property tax bills for median priced homes have risen by $2,000, or 85% in six years. The sticker shock has enraged homeowners and taxpayers are fighting back locally. Yet Republicans are proposing to raise taxes again anyway.
And that's how to turn a red state blue.
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