Marian Starr of Falls Church says she is still on the fence when it comes to November's sales-tax referendum. On June 27, she joined about 35 others at the Falls Church City Hall to listen to a debate on the topic between Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-35TH) and James Parmelee, the NorthernVirginiaGOP.com, a political action committee.
"For me it was more of an educational experience," she said. Although she did not think either participant won the debate outright, she said Devolites had possibly gotten the upper hand. "I think she has good insights," said Starr.
DEVOLITES DEFENDED House Republicans, saying they had supported over $ 2.5 billion in tax cuts over the past two years. The GOP's support of the referendum on increasing the sales tax by half a percent is due to the fact that congestion on Northern Virginia's roads is a serious quality-of-life issue, which could jeopardize the region's economic position.
"It's very rare that every Republican in the General Assembly would support this referendum," she said.
"We need to look at this issue as a quality-of-life issue as well. … If the quality of life is decreasing in Northern Virginia, our businesses are going to leave."
Northern Virginia's economic health is crucial to the entire Commonwealth, she added, because the region drives the rest of the state's economy. "And things are getting worse in Southside and southwest Virginia," she said.
The half-cent sales-tax increase is expected to generate approximately $5 billion over 20 years. That money is earmarked for specific road and transit projects, although the timetable and prioritization of those projects has not yet been determined.
Devolites also took issue with the widely repeated claim that Northern Virginia gets only 19 cents for every dollar it sends down to Richmond. While education gets 20 cents on the dollar, she said, the region actually gets a dollar back for every dollar it sends away in state and federal transportation taxes. But 85 percent of that money is devoured by the costly Springfield Interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge projects, she added.
The referendum, therefore, would not be about getting fairer funding for the region. "It's about getting more," she said.
PARMELEE TOOK ISSUE with Devolites' figures, calling them "way out there."
According to Parmelee, state spending is at record levels despite dire budget predictions, and none of the increased spending is going toward Northern Virginia transportation improvements.
"The problem is not that we raise too little; the problem is that we spend too much," he said.
"We're awash in this cash, but [legislators] didn't spend any of it on transportation," he added. "They say they want more transportation or roads up here, and they didn't do it."
Parmelee said it would be impossible to ensure that money generated by the increased sales tax would go toward the projects earmarked in the legislation. He suggested most of that money would end up in Richmond.
"This is a scam from the word 'go,'" he said. "If we vote for this tax increase, we're not going to get any more money. … This is money that we're never going to see."
But Devolites said increases in state spending were directed toward long-overdue improvements in public education, higher education, public safety and health programs. She also said sales-tax receipts would not stay in Richmond. "I've never heard a locality say they didn't get their 1.5-percent sales tax back," she said.
MOST REPUBLICAN citizen committees have passed resolutions opposing the sales tax. This puts them at odds with the overwhelming number of Republican elected officials who have endorsed it. In Northern Virginia, all but three Republican legislators are supporting the referendum.
Despite this split, Parmelee said there was no general feeling of betrayal among rank-and-file Republicans, but rather a general awareness of the fact that "power corrupts.”
"The elected officials have heard from their donors and the businesses," he said, noting that the business community has urged a "yes" vote on the referendum. "I think the businesses have been misled with this. The business community is well-meaning, but naive."
Parmelee added that he had supported the campaigns of Devolites and other Republicans who are now endorsing the referendum. "They've done so many good things in other areas," he said. "They are all Republicans that I support."