- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

By far the most important development during the just-concluded session of the Virginia General Assembly was the collapse of the transportation funding solution agreed to by Gov. Tim Kaine and the General Assembly last year. Members of the legislature, clearly surprised by the justifiably angry reaction to the “abusive driver” fees included in the great transportation compromise of 2007, joined Mr. Kaine in repealing them. As the governor and the General Assembly busily searched for ways to make up for that lost revenue, the Virginia Supreme Court hit them with the second part of its one-two punch on Feb. 29 — striking down the power of regional transportation authorities to raise taxes. On Thursday, the General Assembly passed legislation refunding the approximately $11 million collected by the authority in Northern Virginia to pay for local projects — revenue raised from seven local taxes and fees, included a tax increase on homes sales, automobile repairs and hotel stays.

With their transportation funding plan collapsing around them, state and local politicians have begun clamoring for the usual solution to the problem: that Richmond pave the way for tax increases. “The simplest course of action would be for the General Assembly to impose the existing list of taxes and fees on the region,” Northern Virginia Transportation Authority Chairman and Arlington County Supervisor Chris Zimmerman wrote in a letter to the governor and General Assembly leaders. “We are ready and fully prepared to manage these, and would be back in business quickly,” Mr. Zimmerman added.

Even before the high-court ruling, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, was proposing a smorgasbord of state and local tax increases. These included raising the state’s 17.5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax by 3 percent through 2011, and increasing by a half-percent the vehicle titling tax. Mr. Saslaw also proposed increasing sales taxes a half percent in Hampton Roads, instituting a 2 percent regional gasoline tax, and putting a new tax on home sales. Mr. Kaine has suggested an increase to the car-titling tax.

Adding a regrettable note of tax-increase bipartisanship, some Republican lawmakers joined the chorus. On Thursday, Fairfax Delegate David Albo raised the idea of calling on localities to raise some taxes, including on home sales, and asking the state to impose others. Delegate Philip Hamilton of Newport News boasted that he had put forward his proposal for local sales taxes before Northern Virginia lawmakers could propose their own.

Mr. Kaine plans to call a special session of the General Assembly in the next two months, and it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see what the proposed solution is going to look like. The repeal of the abusive-driver fees and the court ruling which struck down regional transportation authorities stripped away approximately 50 percent of the $1 billion in revenue that last year’s transportation deal was expected to raise. With the 2007 “grand bargain” having collapsed, the responsible thing would be for the governor and the General Assembly to do what they should have done years ago: reform the ludicrous system of allocating state transportation revenues that shortchange Northern Virginia while lavishing money on less essential projects in rural areas of the Old Dominion.

The current system is protected by powerful lawmakers with seniority who like the current system because it funnels pork to their districts. But no one in the General Assembly has the political courage to challenge the misallocation of Virginians’ tax dollars. Strip away all of the gauzy rhetoric from Mr. Kaine and Republicans like Mr. Hamilton, and the reality is this: Right now, it is much easier for politicians in Richmond to hit their constituents with higher and higher taxes than to fix a broken system that squanders taxpayers’ money on lower-priority rural projects.

There were some positive developments during the 2008 session in Richmond. Lawmakers approved bills which would establish a presumption against bail for illegal aliens who commit crimes and require cross-checking of information on inmates arrested and currently in the Virginia prison system against federal and local databases of illegal aliens. Lawmakers passed legislation requiring the State Corporation Commission to shut down companies convicted of violating federal immigration laws. But they failed to approve legislation calling on the governor to enter the State Police into a so-called 287(g) agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which would give state police the authority to assist ICE in detaining illegal aliens captured in the course of routine policework.

To their credit, legislators had the good sense to avoid relatively egregious nanny-state misadventures like a statewide smoking ban. But there are signs that Republicans in the House of Delegates, their majorities shrinking over several election cycles, are getting squeamish about limited-government conservatism. The Virginia GOP Caucus blog, for example, boasts that Republican members of the House of Delegates want to spend substantially more for K-12 public education than Mr. Kaine and the Democrats (See vagopcaucus.blogspot.com). It’s just the latest sign that the Old Dominion is changing from a red to a purple state.

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