Last night, I attended a wrap-up forum from our local state legislators. All six were Democrats. Generally, they were fairly informative. With the Q&A period afterwards, I would say that they all handled themselves well but with a big asterisk.
Sen. Chap Petersen’s overview of the budget process was frank: He, along with all the others I believe, held their noses when voting for the budget. He noted that withholding payments for the Virginia Retirement System to balance the budget could come back to haunt us when we must replenish the VRS with interest. Future employees will also find a less generous retirement system. One legislator was a little too self-congratulatory when claiming legislators saved education funding. They used this VRS budget gimmick.
In defending the budget, Petersen said the only alternative was massive cuts. That of course is not true. Another alternative is to raise taxes. There is where I place an asterisk.
We finally got around to taxes when I asked the legislators if they would support a gas tax to increase to transportation funds. While no one’s hand shot up, several said they had supported past attempts to raise transportation funding that included tax increases. Talking with one legislator after the meeting, he said that he and others had taken political risks in voting for those tax increases.
He has a fair point, one that I don’t readily concede when talking about my frustration with Democrats over the tax issue. The problem as I see is that they don’t know how to talk about taxes.
The first problem is a lack of trust that voters can digest a sensible discussion about taxes. They fear any dialogue can be parsed into a 30-second commercial against them. If that’s all they hear about taxes, they probably have a justified concern.
The solution is not to back away from the discussion but to expand it, much as Gov. Mark Warner did and Gov. Tim Kaine tried with much less determination.
One excuse I heard last night is that that discussion really is the governor’s domain. I disagree. If the Democratic Party in Virginia had a disciplined plan to engage voters, it could claim and dominate the discussion.
It’s also a problem of numbers. The numbers thrown around last night were big ones. Our transportation needs require $1.6 billion more dollars per year. The budget shortfall was $2 billion. Even after cuts to education, social services and public safety, several hundred million more in cuts were needed—and found through the VRS gimmick. All very big numbers.
A couple of weeks ago I attended two forums held by my local supervisor, a Republican with the usual antipathy toward taxes. But both groups of citizens, when asked, were willing to hike real estate taxes at least 8 cents to minimize proposed cuts to education, libraries, the police, etc.
The reason, I believe, is because they dealt with a much smaller number—the amount they would pay in increased taxes.
When framed that way, the dynamics change. We do need $1.6 billion in more transportation dollars. What that comes out to for the average driver is $192 dollars a year. (see footnote) I believe an argument framed that way would find a more receptive audience. When the discussions were waning in our local supervisor’s budget meetings, people knew that an 8-cent increase would raise an additional $144 million in revenues and, along with other tax increases, would cost them an average of $244. They readily agreed to pay—not $144 million in the aggregate, but $244 each.
Politicians need to break down big numbers, which are incomprehensible to us, to ones we can embrace. How much will it cost me? I urge them in the next citizen forum they attend to ask people what they think it would cost them each to pay for a first-class transportation system. I’ll bet it’s more than $192 more a year. (And that figure will drop as we catch up on the backlog of projects.)
They also need to tell us what more taxes buy us. Not once last night did legislators outline what $1.6 billion a year buys. Granted, this wasn’t a forum on transportation, but any discussion about transportation revenues should always make reference to the exact benefits. In our district, more funds might mean traffic amelioration around George Mason University, which with its growth is creating gridlock in the area. It might mean mass transit alternatives that will unclog Braddock Road during rush hours. When talking about gas taxes in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway might be invoked. In Hampton Roads, there are bridge and tunnel projects that are sorely needed. How would an additional $192 dollars in taxes impact the timetable for these projects?
Without this detailed discussion of benefits, voters will worry about a black hole for their tax dollars.
Lastly, the campaign for adequate state funds must be ongoing, coordinated and sustainable. But before that it must be carefully developed for prime time. We see what happens when it isn’t in Sen. Creigh Deeds’ buffoonish approach to taxes during the gubernatorial campaign. A successful campaign won’t be accomplished in a few weeks or during a typical Labor Day to Election Day General Assembly campaign. It needs to grow from small “coffees” to test messages, then on to larger forums to secure the sale.
Democrats have nothing to fear but fear itself. Then Gov. Mark Warner proved it could be done, although even that campaign was short on the small numbers people need. I concede I’ve been harsh with some Democrats, but it’s not their heart I question. It’s their ability to communicate the need for more revenue and higher taxes to ensure our standards of living remain high. They must trust and try.
Footnote: When writing this originally, I left out a needed explanation here: The $192 figure is derived from the 32-cent increase in the gas tax required to raise $1.6 billion, based on a calculation of 15,000 miles per year driven by the average driver of a car averaging 25 miles per gallon. I should have included this information in the original post.