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Full of Gas: WashPost Editorial Board attack on McDonnell misplaced

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by Paul Goldman

Until the Washington Post editorial board is willing to have an honest discussion of the history of the Gas Tax – and its role in destroying a bipartisan coalition on the issue – then the of citizens of Virginia, NOVA residents particularly, will continue be short-changed. The latest Post attack on Governor McDonnell is full of the same basic misleading analysis jump off point as in their attacks on other candidates and in that regard, their decision to saddle the Democratic Party in 2009 with Creigh Deeds.

So for those who actually want to try to solve the problem – as opposed to make points with voters/readers/whomever on the subject while knowing they are making it harder to get a solution – then let’s have an honest discussion.

Contrary to folklore, the reason Harry F. Byrd Sr. became the leader of the Byrd Machine is not his opposition to taxes, as is commonly claimed today. Quite the opposite: he rose to power by championing a bigger gas tax increase than the sitting Democratic Governor! Indeed, once elected Governor, he supported several more increases in the gas tax!

By today’s conservative standards, Harry Byrd was a flaming, pro-tax, big government liberal on fiscal issues!

But you say: Come on Paul, how can that be, Byrd a big gas tax guy?

Byrd’s reputation for being “fiscally conservative” had to do with his opposition to the state issuing huge amount of transportation bonds, not gas taxes [in the fiscal area of course. In terms of what we would call social spending, that wasn’t an issue back then for either party, the Democrats committed to segregation, the GOP never a threat to defeat the Byrd boys.]

Thus: The Byrd Machine didn’t fear raising the gas tax as some liberal thing. Indeed, as the GOP began to elect more and more members in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the fiscally responsible thing to do remained raising the gas tax to pay for transportation IN BOTH PARTIES!

If you go back and study the debates at the time, they weren’t over raising the gas tax: but rather how the revenue would be allocated around the state. Such monies are allocated based on formulas and these equations lagged the state’s rapid population growth. The YES and NO voters were based on which localities got the money, not about raising the money.

Ultimately, the Byrd opposition to bond financing, while helping to keep the state’s AAA rating, became a real anchor to NOVA, Tidewater and the 9th CD, which not surprisingly where usually the areas of the most anti-Byrd strength in the later years of his reign.

NOW COMES 1986 AND WHAT THE WASHINGTON POST REFUSES TO DISCUSS.            

In 1986, despite pledging not to raise taxes, newly elected Governor Gerald Baliles proposed a massive road building plan based on an increase in the state sales tax.

As I showed at the time, the supporters of the Baliles plan jury-rigged the numbers by a clever device, but not clever enough. In effect, they used an inflation factor to gin up the amount of revenue to be generated while purposely not doing the same thing on the cost side!

So naturally by the 1990’s, the promise of new roads all around ran into the fact the plan didn’t have the money projected.

BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY:

The use of the sales tax broke with the USER FEE concept that had underlined the Byrd approach to the gas tax, the same line of reasoning which had allowed President Ronald Reagan to go for a 5 cent gas tax increase.

A USER FEE, in conservative parlance, is not really a tax increase but just what it says — a fee you use if you use the roads. It is a fair in that regard to conservatives. Indeed, the User fee approach has a lot benefits, of course it depends on how it is structured.

ON THE OTHER HAND, a sales tax in effect taxes necessities and non-road related items. It is a total break with the USER FEE CONCEPT.

However, the Post and others sold it as a better way to raise money – the revenue rose with inflation: and besides, it would BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE GAS TAX WHICH WOULD NOT BE NEEDED.

SO: When the Post editorial board, as it always does, starts this editorial talking about how low the VA gas tax is relative to other states, THEY NEVER MENTION THE SALES TAX!

This totally fries the GOP and other conservatives: and this is understandable.

Thus, the Post never adds into the VA gas tax a number to show that residents also pay a sales tax for roads, perhaps the only such dedicated tax in the country, certainly at the time of passage.

MORE IMPORTANTLY:

By pushing for the sales tax, the Washington Post editorial board and others destroyed the bipartisan history of a coalition for the USER FEE CONCEPT in funding transportation.

CONCLUSION:

The Post and others need to finally admit they were 1/2 penny wise – the sales tax increase – and pound foolish. They got something 26 years ago, AT THE EXPENSE OF DESTROYING A 50-year coalition that had always passed periodic increases in the gas tax.

This doesn’t mean what Baliles, the Post, and others did was wrong or hurtful to the state. People have to get over this personal stuff, the way I had to get over the Post trying to destroy my strategy for Wilder in 1989 by totally misreading our stance on abortion, which could have killed our campaign. I had put a lot of time and energy into figuring out how to break the color line in American politics. The Post was screwing it up. They misunderstood both the substance and strategy. Stuff happens, we all make mistakes.

But when you destroy a 26-year coalition for a USER FEE that has worked, you can’t just sweep it under the rug.

In 1923, Harry Byrd had the guts to put his career on the line and let voters decide in a referendum whether his approach to road building was better than the Governor’s.

In 2012, why can’t we have the same guts to trust the people?

I know, I know: The 2002 local sales tax referendums put on the ballot by Governor Warner went down to big defeats. But he did the right thing, this is what the people in those areas wanted. There were reasons why those referendums failed, and he and I discussed them at the time before the measures were put on the ballot. Warner knew the risks. But he let the voters decide. Bill Thomas and I urged him not to do it. But we admired his willingness to keep his promise and take the risk.

What will the voters do in 2012? It depends on the proposal and courage of our leaders.

The Washington Post and others can instead keep attacking Governor McDonnell, and then force the Democrats to get killed again in 2013 by running a candidate who promises to raise taxes for roads.

Earth to everyone: Doug Wilder is criticized by the Post for running on a no-tax platform. Well, the fact is we did four years before, as did Baliles. As did Warner in the platform I helped write for him, and Kaine didn’t run as a pro-tax either. NO DEM HAS EVER WON THE GOVERNORSHIP IN THE MODERN ERA ON A PROMISE TO RAISE TAXES.

Deeds promised to raise taxes — and he got crushed.

At some point, if you are really serious about change, you have to take off the rose-colored glasses and trust the people.

I believe the right proposal for a USER FEE dedicated to road maintenance would be acceptable to the majority of Virginians in a referendum.

There are a lot of ways to developed a fair, efficient, USER FEE approach that meets the Reagan test, indeed the historic AAA test of fiscal responsibility. We could put it on the ballot this fall.

In VA, it would only be advisory of course. But we did it for horse racing, the lottery and legalizing ABC sales, all contentious issues that the politicians couldn’t resolve. The people voted YES and the GA got it done the next year.

In politics, you at some point have to play the hand you’re dealt as best you can. Which includes being honest about how things got into the current mess.

Until the Washington Post admits the facts and discusses the history honestly, they will likely be writing the same editorial 10 years from now.

The choice is theirs: sadly, we have to live with the consequences of a bad one.