Is there a hidden agenda behind tax reform?

I save these little diatribes on my computer, not so much out of narcissism as out of the need to avoid repetition. Themes and even rhetoric frequently make return appearances.? Lengthy content should not.

So when I wrote a suggested title for my editor (insight into the editorial process: he frequently discards it in favor of a better one; rarely do I have cause to complain), pushed the “Save as” button, and typed in “Tax Reform” as the short title, I was prompted with a message that I would have to replace a file earlier named “Tax Reform.”

The point?? It’s baaaa-ack! Virginia’s Boyish Governor, Mark Warner, and a not insubstantial portion of the General Assembly and the chattering classes are once again returning to a theme raised and abandoned in this year’s legislative session – tax reform.

And to be sure, a strong case can be made – it’s probably generally agreed – that Virginia’s antiquated tax code, written in the early part of the last century to provide revenue for a largely agrarian and goods-oriented economy, needs serious revision. Differences arise, however, when the reason for revision is discussed.

Most would agree that it is necessary to deal with the modern service and technological economy. However, the hidden agenda of Virginia’s Boyish Governor, his steadily declining number of Democrat friends in the General Assembly, and a few too many Republicans (for whom “budget discipline” is a practice to be exercised over spending in someone else’s district), is to use tax “reform” to shield their fervent desire to raise taxes. The goal? To fund a spending spree thus far avoided by the “crisis” mentality in Richmond, by which they mean that they could only increase state spending in fiscal year 2004 by 4 percent (over a billion dollars) over FY 2003, rather than whatever outrageous sum above that they wanted to increase state spending.

History provides an interesting guide here. By comparison, the commonwealth’s budget increased by more than $2 billion (13.3 percent) between FY 1998 (when it was merely $17.621 billion) and FY 1999 (to $19.962 billion). Another large increase occurred in FY 2000, when the state budget increase by nearly $1.75 billion (8.76 percent), to nearly $21.369 billion. Another $2 billion (9.14 percent increase came in FY 2001, when state spending increased to nearly $22.323 billion. Another billion dollar plus increase (“only” 4 percent) came in FY 2002, when the budget increased to $23.483 billion

During the so-called “crisis” years of Mark Warner’s tenure, the commonwealth’s budget has grown steadily, too. In FY 2003, spending has risen to nearly $24.983 billion, or “only” 6.4 percent; in FY 2004, state spending is expected to rise by more than another billion dollars, to over $26 billion. All of this data is available on-line, at: (you’ll have to do the math yourself).

But the Boyish Governor has made abundantly clear through omission that his highest priority is to use tax “reform” as an excuse to impose upon Virginians a tax increase that they’ve otherwise made clear is unacceptable.

It wasn’t too long ago that Virginia politicians – Republicans and Democrats alike – spent millions to persuade Virginians that they are undertaxed. The echoes of that effort reverberated recently in Prince William County, where chief sales tax increase advocate Jack Rollison was defeated in the GOP primary, and in northwestern Virginia, where State Senator Russell Potts barely beat back a GOP primary opponent.

To his credit, Warner has gotten smarter this time. Or more underhanded, depending upon your point of view. Rather than advocating higher taxes honestly, Warner is attempting to avoid a nasty election-year issue. With all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for election, and Democrats lacking enough candidates to claim a majority in either house even if all were victorious, Warner can ill afford the type of electoral debacle sure to ensue if he were to tell of his true intentions.

Warner’s got so few Democrats to spare that word is among county activists that he persuaded Chuck Colgan to run for another senate term, even though he had intended to retire. Likewise, former Delegate David Brickley was recruited to run for delegate against incumbent Republican and taxpayer friend Scott Lingamfelter (Question: Doesn’t this mean they’re running to represent Mark Warner, not Prince William?).

So… the Boyish Governor’s playing coy. Much like Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, the Governor has some kind of “secret plan” for tax reform. And he’s not letting legislators (or us poor old taxpayers) in on it.

To be sure, a few morsels are escaping. For example, like national Democrats, Warner wants to take a majority of taxpayers off the rolls, and “soak the rich.” The idea is to rob Peter (the dreaded “rich”) to pay Paul (the “working poor”). Of course, as the billboard posted outside of the Atlanta Omni to welcome the 1988 Democratic National Convention read, “Remember: He who robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.”? And the logic is perfectly understandable: if Democrats succeed in making a majority of voters tax consumers (read: plunderers), they will have every reason to reward Democrats with their votes. Tax producers, of course, will have insufficient numbers to defeat plundering Democrats at the polls.

The problem with such a practice, of course, is a problem for democratic and republican self-government. For if a majority of the populace pays no taxes, its only stake in the government is as a consumer of government’s so-called “services.” Such a construction is almost a sure prescription for fiscal disaster. At a minimum, there is no incentive for a majority of the electorate to maintain any form of fiscal discipline.

Republican leaders of the House of Delegates, and some taxpayer-friendly leaders in the State Senate, like newly-elected Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, are beginning to bang the drum and make it clear to voters that any tax “reform” proposal which is not announced and submitted prior to November’s elections – providing the electorate with a chance to assess it and vote accordingly – will be dead on arrival in the General Assembly.

Among the most compelling reasons to treat it as such would be for the governor to submit a plan which surreptitiously seeks to raise taxes. If Virginia’s Boyish Governor does so, Republicans should quickly put a stake through the heart of the proposal.

An attorney, Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair.