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To Tax or Not to Tax — It's Not a Simple Question

Sales-tax referendum or no sales-tax referendum? Education or transportation or both? One cent or a half-cent? More roads or fewer roads? Homes to jobs or jobs near homes? Local, regional or statewide?

Under the aegis of the Alexandria Democratic Committee (ADC), four panelists presented the pros and cons of the proposed sales-tax referendum to a sparse audience in the auditorium of the Minnie Howard Ninth-Grade Center.

When it was over, there was a split decision for second place between skepticism and doubt. Confusion was the clear winner.

In opening the forum, Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donley warned the 50-plus attendees, "This is a very complicated issue. As you hear from the panelists tonight, think very carefully about the various nuances involved." He then listed all the variables.

Donley said, "Alexandria is promoting more funds for transportation with an emphasis on local transportation. City Council's position is we have endorsed money for mass transportation, an urban highway system, and for localities that operate local transit systems such as DASH."

He noted, "We have also endorsed money for both transportation and education. The real question is, should we empower ourselves to help ourselves?"

In opening the debate, Richard R.G. Hobson, ADC's resolutions officer and the evening's panel moderator, said, "This year we (ADC) decided this was the issue. The ADC will vote on Feb. 4, to take a position. I counted 13 bills presently in the General Assembly on this issue.

"The terms of the referendum are not yet established. But in the final analysis, the will of the voters will prevail."

With that, Hobson introduced the first panelist, Robert O. Chase, president, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, who pleaded the case for more investment in roads. "Surveys over the past 15 years show transportation is the leading concern in Northern Virginia," he said.

UP THE INCOME TAX — NOT SALES TAX

"We've added 1.2 million people, one million jobs, and more than 1.3 million vehicles in this area in the past 15 years." He continued, "We have built all the mass transit that was planned, but not even close to the roads planned."

A highway construction shortfall of 1,500 lane miles exists, according to Chase. "We rank second nationally in commuting time. Even if we pass a 1-percent increase in the sales tax, that only gets us halfway to the funds we need to complete the roads already planned," he insisted.

His solution? "What we really need is a 1-percent increase in the state income tax. We've underinvested for years, and increasing the sales tax won't get us the money we need," he warned.

As far as the face-off between transportation and education is concerned, Chase said, "Transportation and education are not an either/or situation. What we need is a strategy."

Chase's plea for more highways was immediately challenged by Stewart Schwartz, executive director, Coalition for Smarter Growth.

"Simply throwing money at the problem won't work. Both VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] and the governor have said we can't pave our way out of this."

He also emphasized, "The companies that are pushing for a higher sales tax are a big part of the problem. Shifting work locations would offer greater solutions."

Schwartz pointed out, "There is very little in the transportation proposals to benefit either Alexandria or Arlington. We need to fix the way we look at land use. It shouldn't be transportation against education."

He cited the Mixing Bowl project as an example how not to do it. "The money in that project alone would pay for 1,500 new schools and allow every teacher to be paid a minimum of $50,000 per year. All we're doing is moving the bottlenecks.

"The roads outlined by Chase should be called the Prince William and Loudoun expansion plans." He also said, "The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is a project on steroids. All this is only going to add to our air pollution."

Making the argument for education was Robert Griendling, a founding member of RENEW, a grassroots school advocacy group created to encourage the renovation of W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County. RENEW has become a leading force in favor of a sales-tax referendum for school renovation and construction.

"Alexandria will need $109 million over the next five years for school improvements, and Fairfax County will need $1 billion over the same time period," according to Griendling. "The sales tax would raise only $9 million of that."

He reviewed the political history of the sales-tax debate in the last General Assembly and noted that it was intended for capital needs only. "Be careful what you think you are supporting. The bills change very quickly," he cautioned.

ALWAYS A BAD IDEA

The final panelist, Peter J. Ferrara, is the executive director of the American Civil Rights Union, a new civil-liberties organization formed as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He is also a former associate professor of law at George Mason Law School.

"The master plan for Northern Virginia is to make it New York City," Ferrara warned. "Raising taxes would be extremely counterproductive. We should allow general revenue to be used for transportation, not be prohibited from doing so."

He emphasized, "State spending has increased 40 percent over the past four years. Northern Virginia sends far more money to Richmond than it gets back. If we would get back our fair share, it would amount to $600 million."

Ferrara noted, "History shows that raising taxes has an adverse economic impact, while tax cuts have a positive impact. A tax increase would be more detrimental in Northern Virginia because we will be the only ones affected if its done on a regional basis."

Following the presentations, the audience had an opportunity to question the panelists. Their main concern was whether the vote on the referendum would be on a local or regional basis. The panelists all agreed that the bills introduced thus far are "all over the ballpark from statewide to local."

In support of Schwartz's position, it was suggested that massive road projects should be scaled back. "If the work on the Virginia side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project were downsized, no additional money would be needed," one attendee stated.

The question was also raised as to why people who drive "gas guzzlers" should pay the same gasoline taxes as those who drive economy cars. Chase answered, "You can't direct your taxes for what suits just you."

He then turned the question, asking the audience, "Should those that have no children in schools opt out of money for schools?" This was met with the response from others that it was a whole different argument.

At the conclusion, the audience was left to reflect on Mayor Donley's original twofold warning and advice, "This is a very complicated issue" and to "listen very carefully to the nuances."