Let the sun shine in

Gov. Mark Warner hosted the first meeting of the commonwealth’s Tax Reform Commission yesterday, laying out only generalized goals for revamping Virginia’s outdated, 88-year-old tax code.

Warner met with 10 lawmakers from the commission to discuss changes, including revising the tax brackets, local taxing authority and the extension of sales taxes to services. With all 140 seats of the Republican-dominated General Assembly up for grabs later this year, Warner chose to leave out the details in his plans for tax reform until after the November elections.

This tactic has upset Republican lawmakers who claim that unveiling a major restructuring of the tax code so close to the convening of the legislature will doom the reform until at least 2005.

As awkward and vague as Warner’s first meeting with lawmakers was, at least the two sides are talking. It is also good to see them meeting in public.

Warner had requested earlier this week that his meeting with key lawmakers be a private affair in the Governor’s Mansion. This blatant violation of the commowealth’s sunshine laws was thinly veiled by the contention that the commission was exempt because it had yet to formally convene or elect officers.

Any meeting, however, between three or more lawmakers falls under state laws requiring public access. Just as county supervisors can’t discuss the budget over a private dinner, state lawmakers can’t meet behind closed doors with the governor on how to adjust our taxes.

Warner finally gave in and opened the meeting to the public, but said he had reasons for requesting a private meeting.

“Legislators requested that we have this initial session [in private] to discuss ways to lower the rhetoric,” Warner told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, referring to the recent partisan bickering on the issue.

There lies a key roadblock in tax reform. Politics impedes reform when lawmakers and a struggling governor are trying to impact the makeup of the next General Assembly. If Warner shows his cards on tax reform, the GOP will pick it apart using the worst portions as campaign fodder to fight off Democrats. A simple mention of taxes is red meat in a political campaign.

Likewise, there are few Republicans placing specific tax reform items on their campaign priority lists. It’s better they simply tell voters they’ll cut taxes and cut spending.

Virginia’s tax code – nearly a century old – was originally based on an economy dependent on agriculture and a rural-dominated economy. Over the years a network of patches and amendments have been added along with a growing list of exemptions. The commonwealth is at a point where it needs to adjust the tax code to accommodate fast growing suburban communities which pump tax money into the state coffers at a disproportional rate. At least a half dozen recent attempts at reform have resulted in few changes.

Revamping Virginia’s tax code will be tough – both in the halls of the Capitol and out on the campaign trail.

It’s good to see that the governor and state lawmakers began this task in the public eye instead of behind closed doors.