Environmental Groups Oppose Sales Tax

Environmental Groups Oppose Sales Tax

<bt>Flying to Seattle last month, Jody Bennett and her husband conducted an informal straw poll.

"He went up and down the aisle [of the plane], asking people where they were from," said Bennett, a civic activist in Vienna. "If they said they were from Northern Virginia, we asked them if they were voting for the sales tax. No one was for it."

Bennett joined other anti-sprawl and environmental activists Monday at George Mason University in Arlington, as they announced the beginning of a campaign to oppose the sales tax referendum leading up to the Nov. 5 election. Calling itself NoSprawlTax.org, the campaign combines the efforts of about 10 environmental, bicycle and smart growth activist groups, including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Washington Area Bicycle Association.

If passed, the referendum would levy an additional half-cent sales tax on all purchases made in Northern Virginia, including Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, in order to fund roadway and transit projects in the region.

But Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that the referendum would really fund the growth of suburbs further and further from the center of the Washington region.

"Time and again, we've seen state government throw transportation dollars at congestion," he said. "Time and again, the congestion just continues to get worse.… we tax and sprawl."

To see real improvement, Schwartz said, developers must change their ways. "Time and again, the same developers, real estate and construction groups have lobbied for tax increases and massive spending on roads," he said, "while doing nothing to address their own development practices that created our traffic problems in the first place."

THOSE SAME DEVELOPERS were behind the push to pass the sales-tax referendum, Schwartz said. According to data from No Sprawl Tax, real estate developers have contributed at least 62 percent of the funds raised to urge voter support for the referendum.

Opponents were doing the best they could to finance their opposition, but were nowhere near the money raised to support the referendum. "We hope to spend $100,000 to $200,000. That would be nice," Schwartz said. "You will not see us on television, unless the cable channels are very nice to us."

But the coalition of environmental groups will find some unlikely allies in their fight against the referendum. The traditionally left-wing environmental groups are joining a conservative, anti-tax opposition to the referendum.

The alliance makes sense, Schwartz said. "Philosophically, you see fiscal conservatism at the heart of the environmental community," he said.

But it was a partnership based mostly on convenience, not on philosophy. "We're working to oppose the same thing, so we're working with them," Schwartz said. "But we're not the anti-tax community."

In fact, the two could have been opponents with a few changes to the referendum, said Tim Wise, a member of conservative anti-referendum group Northern Virginia Coalition to Stop the Sales Tax.

"If this was 100 percent transit, we might be affiliated with the developers," he said. "I think there is probably some of the 'strange bedfellows' going on, but there are a lot of coalitions formed."

SOMETIMES, THERE SEEMS to be a coalition between elected officials and the developers, said Lois Rice, like Bennett a smart growth activist in Vienna.

“Time and again, I’ve gone before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, and I said, ‘Tell them No’” when they ask for more roads, she said. “The throw up their hands and say, ‘How can we?’”

Elected officials, from Fairfax supervisors to state senators to Gov. Mark Warner (D), who have thrown their support behind the tax referendum, came in for similar criticism at the announcement of No Sprawl Tax’s formation. The event took place in Arlington, and Schwartz began by lauding the County Board.

“We’re sure Arlington will use this money responsibly,” he said. “But we’re concerned about how it would be spent in other areas.”

Government support for the referendum is a matter of "a bird in the hand," Schwartz said. "They will take money for roads, where ever it's coming from. We see it in Congress all the time, they'd rather have a bad deal than no deal."

That support also came from the Metro board, which was urging the passage of the referendum in order to get some $250 million earmarked to fund the expansion of Metro rail. But Schwartz called that money a "Trojan horse … a drop in the bucket of Metro's maintenance needs."

Jay Fisette, Arlington County Board member, said that wasn't the case with the referendum. Fisette came to the kickoff of the No Sprawl Tax coalition on Monday, and said he was there to show his support for the smart growth policies advocated by many of the member organizations.

But Fisette and his colleagues on Arlington’s County Board were also in direct opposition to the group, having voted unanimously to endorse the referendum at their Sept. 14 board meeting.

He and other local elected officials are not just blindly backing the referendum, he said. "Some of it is, this is the only game in town after the decimation of the state budget by the last governor.”

"But I wouldn’t’ve supported the referendum if not for the amount of transit involved,” he said. “We have a one-time, unprecedented amount for transit — something like 50 percent."