Delegates, columnists debate sales tax at forum

Two House delegates and two local columnists went at it on the sales tax referendum in a forum Thursday night before the Committee of 100.

The question to raise the sales tax half a cent goes before voters Nov. 5 in nine Northern Virginia jurisdictions to fund $5 billion in transportation projects over 20 years.

Not a simple question, as the debate covered state funding formulas and budget, the projects themselves, and tax rates for Virginia.

“One of the first questions you have to ask is, ‘What about all the taxes that we are already paying? Why can’t they use some of that for core government [like transportation]?” asked Peter Ferrara, a columnist and leader of the anti-tax Virginia Club for Growth group. Rather than increase spending so fast, the state should slow it down and spend the savings on transportation, he said. The state budget this year is up 7 percent for the “highest spending in the history of Virginia going back to the founding of the House of Burgesses Oh, you have to think about that when they say ‘We don’t have any money.'”

Woodbridge Delegate John A. “Jack” Rollison III, R-52nd District, who sponsored the referendum legislation, said this is one of the unworkable alternatives opponents are offering.

The state’s spending increases have not gone to waste, he said. Some of it was the $2.5 billion for car tax relief and the state’s rainy day fund now being used in the recession.

“So far in the debate no one has said what programs they are going to cut,” he said. “Our plan is here I would challenge our opponents to come forward with their secret plan so we will know what it is we need to know on the fifth of November.”

“There is no secret plan by anybody,” said Dale City Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st District, a leading anti-tax advocate. The money can be found in the state budget, he said, since the referendum’s proceeds amount to four tenths of one percent of the Virginia budget. If the state controlled its spending growth to population plus inflation, Virginians would have a $1,700 tax cut, he said.

Whether the tax would be a burden was argued.

Rick Coplen, a columnist from Dale City who favors the tax proposal, rather than getting into the debate of computing tax cost per family, said “that doesn’t matter. None of us is average.” Instead he said for a $10 book, the cost is a nickel, and for a pair of $100 shoes 50 cents.

Ferrara said the tax increase should be seen as an 11 percent increase, since that is the rate of increase from 4 1/2 to 5 percent. It is an increase that will not terminate after 20 years but will be permanent, he said. “Once you approve that you’ll never get it back,” he said.

Gov. Mark R. Warner has said it would go for 25 to 30 years to pay off the bonds, but opponents have pointed out the law states it can go until the region’s transportation plan is complete.

Rollison said the state law will not allow any of the funds to be diverted out of the region and will not take away from current funding streams, “a fact that state law leaves no doubt, Mr. Ferrara,” he said.

But Lingamfelter said the debate over funding formulas never got going in Richmond this year, and that is the debate that should be going on. “So where are the votes? We got enough to ask you to raise your taxes, we should be able to get enough for the funding formula,” he said.

Rollison said even if all of the state’s highway and primary road dollars were sent to Northern Virginia, that would not be as much money as the referendum. Lingamfelter is a good politician, but a 100 percent funding formula is out of his reach, Rollison said.

Most of the 40 people in attendance at the forum raised their hands when asked if they had already made up their minds on the referendum. To those who did not: “I would like to direct my comments to you three people,” Lingamfelter said.

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