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Bob McDonnell as Poet Robert Frost. And Will Ken Cuccinelli Gamble on a Tax Revolt?


( – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

Governor McDonnell as Robert Frost, the favorite poet of the Massachusetts liberal elite for many years, winner of (4) Pulitzer Prizes in a field sneered at by "he man" conservatives? As the saying goes, "who would have thunk it?!" But right now, Frost's "The Road Not Taken", at least by any other governor, is required reading at the Statehouse. So far, Senate Democrats and Republican Tea Baggers are resisting.

It is an odd game of Three Card Monte for sure, but about to change. It is difficult to see Senate Democrats siding with Tea Baggers and not McDonnell in the end to enact some transportation plan. McDonnell has thus thrown down the gauntlet to Tea Party conservatives, a significant perhaps pivotal event in current national, not just, Virginia politics. This has aspect has received little attention here in Virginia, much less around the country.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both"

Thus began Mr. Frost's poem, a mere 20 lines, published roughly a century ago, about the time a special "user fee" tax on gasoline began to gain wide acceptance by conservatives and liberals alike, along with those in between, as the right way to finance the growing national love-affair with Henry Ford's Model-T. Way back, Thomas Jefferson supported a lottery, for example, to build roads. There were tolls. There were fees. But until Henry Ford got the combustion engine just right for his $240 dollar basic Model-T ($5,500 in today's bucks) policy makers had not considered the growing impact of the new American "dream machine."

By 1920, the gas tax had entered the American lexicon. A few years later, then State Senator Harry Byrd challenged his own party's Governor, advocating higher gas taxes, and less debt financing, for road building. The two tangled: and Byrd beat the old boss to become the new VA boss. In 1986, Governor Jerry Baliles got fellow Democrats to add 1/2 cent to the state sales tax, dedicating all this new revenue to financing the transportation grid. At the time, I pointed out this use of a general tax, as opposed to a user fee, likely would destroy the bipartisan coalition developed during the Byrd days to fund transportation. 27 years later, no governor has been able to raise the gas tax, the longest such period in state history.


What seemed self-evident to me back then has now arrived at the logical extension, the inevitable crossroad sooner or later. Such moments reveal at lot about people in politics, often far more than they wanted. Thus the recent amazing Washington Post editorial. The writers urge – no, they demand – that Democrats take monies earmarked currently to fund education, mental health and other social programs in the future and instead use said funds to finance the state's transportation grid.

It is clear the Post editorial writers failed to appreciate their Freudian slip. Senators Saslaw and McEachin have now written a letter, made public, to the governor, rejecting the Post position. There is, for sure, a fair amount of political positioning, between the two sides. But it is also true that the Roanoke Times responded in an editorial calling the Post editorial board a bunch of "elite snobs" to use a Sarah Palinism, saying the Post editorialists' children had access to far better schools in general than those in other parts of the state whose youngsters desperately needed that education money to upgrade their future educational opportunities. I bet it is the first time the Post Toasties have ever been called a bunch of elites in print by a newspaper that has regularly backed Democrats for governor. True, the Times didn't use this exact word. But out in the Western part of the state, folks are more polite.

What is happening now where the rubber meets the road as the adage goes?  

McDonnell Throws Down Gauntlet to Tea Party Republicans:

What the Governor has proposed here in 2013, and so far gotten his party to support in the House of Delegates, is truly amazing on an historical basis. It is one of those real events in politics which has the potential of alerting an upcoming gubernatorial election, rendering a candidate who takes the wrong road unelectable in March even though the voters will not deliver the bad news until November.

              "Somewhere ages and ages hence:
               Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
               I took the one less traveled by,
               And that has made all the difference."

Those are the closing 4 lines to the Frost Poem. "The Road Not Taken" seems too short to be too complicated, a mere 20 lines in all of similar length. But it is nuanced and complicated for me, I don't claim to understand it, yet as Frost intended, I get the basic point. And so, apparently, does Governor McDonnell. Until this year, no Governor, no policy tank, no federal or state highway commissioner anywhere in America, or similar figure around the world, has ever suggested what Governor McDonnell has proposed. 

But this is not merely a transportation debate. The larger truth: McDonnell, a big backer of Mitt Romney, privately blames the Tea Party for costing his man the presidency, due to their influence in the party's nominating process. The Tea Party conservatives, by the same McDonnell analysis, has hijacked the 2013 GOP VA nomination process, reneging on calling a primary [better for McDonnell's choice of successor LG Bill Bolling] and instead substituting a convention process, far worse for Bolling, indeed the LG dropped out of the contest realizing he couldn't defeat Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Bolling is so mad, he is threatening to ruin his career by running against his own party as a retooled "moderate" independent candidate.

McDonnell has given up trying to talk Bolling out of such foolishness. But the governor knows his party can not continue down the same road. Moreover, this being his last year in office, McDonnell wants to leave his mark on transportation. He has been like Captain Ahab in pursuit of the transportation white whale, hoping to cover it with black tar used to pave roads. He thinks he has finally harpooned the elusive creature. 

McDonnell has basically told the Tea Baggers the following: If you will not help me pass a reasonable transportation package, then I will cut a deal with Saslaw and McEachin unless they overplay their hand. At which point, McDonnell is saying, you Tea Baggers will have to make a fatal choice: and if you choose wrong, the GOP ticket will go down in flames, as will the Tea Bagger movement. 


The current General Assembly fight over transportation funding appears to divide into three camps. But this is not true at the gut fundamental level. All three camps actually agree on the fundamental premise to McDonnell's proposal: namely, the current gas tax can no longer do the job originally intended nearly 100 years ago. There must be a new "non-user" source of said funds. The three camps differ therefore not over the fundamental strategic point, but rather over the tactical decision on how to go forward into the twenty-first century.


McDonnell wants to go the "whole hog" and eliminate the gas tax or any special "user fee" tax paid at the pump by motorists. Is this a purely policy view or one crafted as a tactical decision based on a calculation as to what can be enacted in the House of Delegates? Surely some of both. But this is not unusual in politics, tactical considerations often are most important. In that regard, the other key part of his plan – changing the distribution formula for sales and use taxes collected from Internet/catalog sales – is consistent with finding new non-user fees revenue sources. It is not clear right now how much money would be subject to McDonnell's new distribution formula if Congress ever passed a new law overturning the Supreme Court decision allowing Amazon and others not to collect the sales tax.

Indeed, Amazon and other such retailers are beginning to voluntarily agree to collect such revenues. Thus, would joining McDonnell now actually divert sales tax money currently going, or likely to go to education for example, without such legislation? Another key question.  


As in 1986, Senate Democrats,the leaders on this issue, want to keep the same basic hybrid system of user and non-user fees. Most would probably prefer a higher sales tax as opposed to a higher gas tax. While T-Mac has been smartly silent to date to give Saslaw and McEachin the widest possible political room, there is little reason to believe he disagrees with keeping the same basic approach as historically backed by Democrats. Can Senate Democrats endorse a change in the distribution formula for sales tax and use revenue collected from Internet/catalog sales? Again, a good question. .


While Cuccinelli, like McAuliffe, has basically stayed out of the transportation debate, there is little reason to believe the AG's position doesn't mirror that of the GOP Senators who pointedly refused to back the governor's transportation plan. In reviewing their alternative, there doesn't seem to be any philosophic base to their opposition except they don't want to give McDonnell an historic win on transportation. Why do I say this?

First, they did agree with the governor's proposal on the internet/catalog sales. This leaves the other key component, the user fee for sales tax trade (other parts of his plan are smaller and clearly designed for horse trading of some sort).

While agreeing to sack the gas tax, the Tea Party conservatives opted to trade it for a new whole sale tax they claim is revenue neutral in the next five years. However, their new tax can only do two things since gas prices are not going to say at the current level forever. If gas prices go down, then their trade effectively reduces the available transportation money generated by this new user fee on a constant dollar basis, something they concede is not in the state's best interest. But if gas prices go up, then this trade increases the user fees paid by average citizens, that is to say it is a tax increase.

BUT: The Tea Party conservatives opposed the McDonnell bill on the grounds it raised taxes! Moreover, on a purely tactical basis, surely even Tea Baggers see the political beauty of the McDonnell plan: you get to brag about your having eliminated the much disliked gas tax, which people think means lower gas prices. The Tea Bagger approach therefore totally wipes out this most useful political argument, since all it does is replace one form of user fee on gas with another. So I ask: What is really happening with the Senate Tea Baggers?   . 


The Senate Tea Bag position only makes sense if they believe the Governor, the Speaker and the House Republican Caucus is missing a brewing tax revolt. Think about it: Carried to its logical conclusion, the Tea Baggers want the VA GOP this year to nominate a statewide ticket with folks who voted against their own governor's transportation plan. This is politically baffling unless you believe one of two things.

First, that McDonnell and Senate Democrats will be unable to come to an agreement both Houses of the State Legislature can pass. This is possible, but it would require a monumental miscalculation in my view on one or both sides.

This then leaves option two: namely, those in control of the GOP nominating process are convinced that McDonnell, Senate Democrats and House Republicans will be badly misreading the public mood on their transportation package. They believe the public will be against it, and reward an anti-McDonnell transportation ticket for not voting to increase taxes.

In this regard, Tea Baggers are doubling down on their bet in 2004, before they officially became Tea Baggers. They bet Warner's tax increase would backfire on Democrats at the state level: but Tim Kaine won in 2005. To be sure, in the interim, the Tea Party anti-tax movement emerged and showed great strength. But President Obama likewise won twice in Virginia.

McDonnell reads these election statistics as saying his transportation plan, which he concedes raises new revenue, is politically attractive because it fixes the maintenance problem and eliminates the gas tax. He believes the public will accept somewhat higher sales taxes in exchange.

As I have been saying for a long time now – alone among Democrats admittedly – the governor is making a shrewd albeit daring play for a Republican.  Moreover, I don't see the advantage for Democrats in helping the Tea Baggers at this point. Why does it help the Democrats at this point to kill McDonnell's plan if there are ways to make it acceptable, even if barely so?

If this analysis is correct, then in the next few weeks, Ken Cuccinelli has to make what could be a fateful decision. Does he really believe the passage of something akin to the McDonnell plan is going to spark a revolt at the polls this November?  More to the point, does he think such a revolt can carry him to victory running against a transportation plan that will be backed by both a Republican governor and united Democratic ticket? 

Remember: I have shown the small philosophic difference between what the Tea Bagger Conservatives want and the governor. The AG has to choose sides. The Road Not Taken may very well make all the difference in 2013, as Mr. Frost mused a century ago.


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