- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

By decisively rejecting the sales-tax increases and new regional taxing authority advocated by Gov. Mark R. Warner and his allies, Northern Virginia voters have rightly rejected the premise that higher taxes are the way to resolve the region's transportation problems. The Northern Virginia tax-increase referendum lost by a wide margin (55 percent to 45 percent), and a similar measure in the Hampton Roads area by an even larger margin (62 percent to 38 percent). This, despite a massively uneven contest that pitted well-financed, well-organized boosters against a hodgepodge of poorly funded anti-sprawl, anti-tax citizens determined to hold the line.
Unfortunately, Mr. Warner does not seem to have clearly grasped the message. Following the defeat of the sales-tax referenda, the governor was asked to comment on the possibility of increasing the gasoline tax to pay for transportation improvements. Mr. Warner avoided answering the question. But Delegate Jack Rollison of Prince William County, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a leader of the pro-tax referendum forces in Northern Virginia, dismissed the idea. "The voters have spoken, and their mood is decidedly anti-tax," he said.
Fortunately, there are alternative ways to pay for needed road improvements in Northern Virginia. As we've noted before on this page, one way is to reduce spending in other areas of the state budget that have been getting more and more money for the past 20-plus years (such as corporate welfare and social-service programs), while spending for transportation has remained flat. It is time to put away the scare tactics and reorder priorities.
Along these lines, Virginia needs to make a decisive break with the longtime practice of raiding the state's transportation trust fund to pay for non-transportation programs. For example, in order to balance the fiscal 2003 budget, the governor and the legislature agreed to divert more than $300 million in sales- and use-tax revenues that had been dedicated to transportation. Unfortunately, when asked recently if he would agree not to conduct a similar raid in 2004 given Virginia's acute gridlock problems, Mr. Warner refused.
Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, a Fairfax Republican elected several months ago on a platform opposing a sales tax increase, has another solid proposal: Reallocate money from sparsely populated rural and suburban areas of the state that need it less. For every dollar in overall taxes that Northern Virginia sends to Richmond, this area receives just 46 cents in state aid. A similar problem exists with regard to transportation funds. Were Northern Virginia to get back roughly the same percentage of overall spending and transportation funds that it currently provides the state in taxes, the region would likely have enough money to finance many of the transportation projects that were to be funded by the defeated tax increase.
The governor has reacted negatively to this reform alternative. He needs to rethink his position. It's long past time for Mr. Warner and local officials to stop tilting at windmills by pushing for tax increases that Northern Virginia residents justifiably refuse to support. Instead, it's time to come up with more equitable funding formulas and ways to reallocate priorities.

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