- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Sen. John Warner announced Wednesday that he backs Gov. Mark Warner's push for regional tax increases to pay for transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Mr. Warner's support, combined with Sen. George Allen's refusal to take a position on the matter, sends an unfortunate message to Virginia voters that Republican leaders are willing to support higher taxes or are indifferent.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Warner the liberal Democrat whom the senator comfortably dispatched in a Senate race six years ago was happy to learn that the senator was joining the high-tax bandwagon. The governor said, "We can use him." The senator said, "[He] is the seventh governor I've worked with. The people of Virginia have elected both of us to work on issues regardless of party."
There's a lot to be said for bipartisanship when Democrats and Republicans are working toward worthwhile goals. But the tax-increase ballot scheme rammed through the General Assembly by Gov. Warner in April is the sort of thing that gives bipartisanship a bad name. Instead of increasing taxes to fund needed road improvements, it's time to reorganize Virginia's spending priorities.
Since 1979, per-capita state transportation spending has remained flat in real terms. But spending has increased on a variety of other things, ranging from needed funding for new prisons to less compelling things like dependency-inducing social welfare programs and "economic development" (i.e., corporate welfare).
Some of the largest spending increases during this period have been in public education, where per-student spending has nearly doubled. In Fairfax County, where grass-roots opposition to tax increases has been particularly intense, statistics show that real per-student spending has doubled, reaching more than $9,300 last year. But SAT scores have remained stagnant, and the increases have done virtually nothing to remedy the black-white achievement gap in county schools. Sadly, innovative ideas like tuition tax credits and charter schools are virtually ignored in Virginia. The Heritage Foundation last year, for example, ranked Virginia a dismal 44th out of the 50 states in its Educational Freedom Index, which measures a state's willingness to give parents an alternative to the public-school monopoly.
Even if the Northern Virginia transportation referendum, which would increase the sales tax from 4.5 to 5 percent, actually passes, there's plenty of reason for skepticism that the money would be spent wisely. "What backers don't mention," The Washington Post noted last week, "is that [the Virginia Department of Transportation] would design, manage and build many of the projects funded by an increase in the sales tax." As The Post noted, VDOT's role is "problematic," given that it is the same agency that was skewered earlier this month "by an independent state auditor, who described the department's chronic delays, failing computer systems, inaccurate cost estimates and widespread management failures."
As for Mr. Allen, who is justifiably seen as a hero for many reasons by Old Dominion conservatives, his decision not to take a stance against the tax-increase referendum could be a risky political gamble. Just ask former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley: In 1990, Mr. Bradley refused to take a position on Gov. James Florio's tax increases, saying he didn't need to do so because he was a federal officeholder. The senator's waffling helped transform what was expected to be a comfortable election to a third term into a cliffhanger in which Mr. Bradley narrowly edged out challenger Christine Todd Whitman. She went on to be elected governor twice. Mr. Bradley retired from the Senate in 1996. It would be a great disappointment if Mr. Allen a public official long known for his candor and willingness to speak out against tax increases and government's refusal to live within its means were to relegate himself to the sidelines as Virginians debate the need for tax increases.

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