How to Progress: Senate's Insistence On New Taxes Dislodged Plan

SPEAKER BILL HOWELLGUEST COLUMNIST Richmond Times-Dispatch Sunday, June 25, 2006

Stafford -- With a bipartisan majority passing a new two-year spending plan, the General Assembly has fulfilled one of its primary responsibilities. Much attention understandably has been focused on the delay in reaching this point.

Important issues were at stake in this year's budget debate, including whether Virginians would have a second major tax hike in three Assembly sessions -- this one during a time of large budget surpluses -- and whether our constitutional procedures for appropriating taxpayer funds would be honored. As a result of the House's resolve, a burdensome and unnecessary tax increase was avoided, and our constitutional obligations were met. With the impasse over taxes, many Virginians may have overlooked the positive actions reflected in the new budget. The plan is a solid one that addresses many of our most pressing needs, especially in public education, Chesapeake Bay revitalization, mental health, and public safety. In addition, we acted to strengthen our economy and create jobs by eliminating Virginia's death tax that harms small, family-owned businesses.

Still, the General Assembly missed an opportunity to invest more of the available revenues in transportation. The House of Delegates fought hard for another major infusion of cash for transportation -- more than $1 billion -- without increasing taxes. Unfortunately, the Governor and his Senate allies seemed more interested in justifying higher taxes than in allocating more of our existing revenues, including an unprecedented $1.5-billion surplus, to help to ease the hardship for commuters. Indeed, even after surrendering on the tax-hike issue, high-tax advocates were deliberately trying to "starve" transportation funding and increase pain for commuters as a way to bolster their case for another major tax hike.

Innovative Solutions Needed When legislators reconvene later this year on transportation, we must move beyond the exhausted tax-hike debate to a serious discussion of innovative solutions, genuine reform, and balanced spending priorities. Sensible solutions involve far more than just raising taxes, throwing more money at VDOT, and hoping that traffic congestion goes away sometime soon. History has shown that does not work. Even candidate Kaine last year acknowledged that you can't pave your way out of congestion.

It's time for Governor Kaine to join us in developing a sensible, creative plan that will address our state's transportation needs in this new century. Our fast-growing economy gives us an opportunity to do so without raising taxes.

It is also time to reject the tax-related brinkmanship that has delayed budget action in recent years. This session marked the third major budget impasse since 2001. A common denominator has been the Senate's insistence on higher taxes, and its unprecedented tactic of holding the entire budget hostage to accomplish its tax-raising goals.

Budget hostage-taking (by embedding tax increases in appropriations legislation) violates our Constitution and sullies our state's reputation for fiscal management. Additionally, it makes hostages out of schoolchildren, the needy and disabled, law-enforcement officers and other first-responders, and dedicated government employees at all levels -- indeed, everyone who depends on state government. Virginia did not become the best-managed state in America by threatening each year to interrupt vital services unless one politician's or one chamber's vision of higher taxes were realized. And, we will not remain a well-managed state -- nor will state government continue to deserve and enjoy the respect and trust of our citizens -- if this insidious tactic continues to be used. Fortunately, I believe this tactic has been so totally discredited that it won't be used again.

Constitutional Safeguard The House, by a large bipartisan majority, passed a joint resolution in 2005 to strengthen the Constitution by restricting the appropriations bill to revenues that already had been enacted at the time of the spending bill's introduction. The Senate failed to approve this sensible safeguard, but perhaps it will reconsider now. It would help put us back on track toward a timely budget process.

Of course, the real problem remains the incessant pressure to raise taxes. It was disappointing to see Governor Kaine, who pledged last year not to raise taxes, come into office and immediately break his promise, demand the largest tax increase in Virginia history, and endorse budget hostage-taking tactics as a means of achieving that goal.

For there to be bipartisan progress on transportation and other issues in the months and years ahead, we need to unite behind an approach that keeps faith with the people of Virginia, respects the Constitution, and empowers citizens to help make decisions that will chart our future. Bill Howell represents the 28th District in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he serves as the Speaker. This story can be found at: