Last year, it was not “if” but “how” Virginia was going to raise taxes to pay for road and school improvements. A couple of close votes in the House and the assistance of the Gov. Mark Warner’s veto pen placed unprecedented legislation on last year’s ballot requesting that voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads raise their regions’ sales tax rate to pay for new road projects.
The General Assembly, with the authority to raise or lower the sales tax, deferred instead to “the citizens” in a year in which all incumbents’ names were safely off the ballot where the sales tax question was put to voters. The voters turned down the idea overwhelmingly despite clogged roads and long waits in traffic.
This year it seems that only Delegate James Dillard, R-Fairfax, has the gumption to file a sales tax bill. Dillard’s bill to raise the state sales tax a full penny is languishing in the House Finance Committee and isn’t expected to escape the House of Delegates. While most Republicans stay away from tax issues these days, Dillard refuses to give up on his quest to find more cash for his home county’s school system the richest in the commonwealth.
While last year’s regional transportation referendum had some merit in using the regional tax base to support regional roads, the school tax plan holds less water. Just as highways are a state responsibility, public schools are the responsibility of the locality. Raising the sales tax rate each time there’s a perceived funding shortfall in our schools is the equivalent to a state takeover of public education.
The prospect of millions of additional dollars may tempt some to support a sales tax increase for education, but it should be tempered by the prospect of local sales tax money being sent to jurisdictions far away from Northern Virginia in the name of equality. It risks the same dilemma seen with VDOT where Northern Virginians constantly complain they are not getting their fair share for roads.
The General Assembly’s fixation on sales taxes should be directed instead to giving counties and cities the adequate tools to fund their own schools. This includes changes in the commonwealth’s outdated tax code and relinquishing certain tax authority to the localities. Tax reform should be placed ahead of tax increases.