When Stan Reid got his $200 federal tax refund check three years ago, he went to the hardware store to buy some window blinds. Buying the blinds wasn't absolutely essential, Reid said, but it was a better way to spend a couple hundred dollars than giving it to the federal government.
"They weren't critical but with the sun coming in through the window, you'd like a blind," he said. "I guess in the private sector every penny counts but in the government they can afford to blow a few pennies and still come back for more."
Reid, a Fairfax resident, supported both the 2001 and the 2003 tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration. And he'd like to see more, he added. Tax cuts are a way of invigorating the economy, he said, and they represent a recognition that the federal government should remain accountable to taxpayers and justify the programs it is spending money on.
"The onus is on the government, not the taxpayers," said Reid, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the GOP nomination for a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Andrew Cooper, however, has seen value for his tax dollars. Cooper, an adjunct instructor in English at George Mason University who is both blind and diabetic, said he is a grateful recipient of government services.
"As a blind person, I can draw social security and work part-time," he said. Also, as he adjusts to a new insulin regime, he has had to call the Fire and Rescue Department to his Annandale home on several occasions.
"I feel responsible when these things happen," he said. "If you want to assess it in capitalistic terms, I'd like to not be a net drain on society. I'd like to think that I'm contributing as much or more than I get."
That's why, he said, "I don't mind being taxed by the federal government to support programs that democracy agrees on."
IN THE LAST YEAR, Virginians have heard a lot about taxes. First, the General Assembly and the Governor ended a protracted political battle by agreeing to raise some of the state's taxes to pay for state services. At the federal level, the administration of President Bush has pushed through two rounds of tax cuts, costing about $270 billion this year, and is working to ensure that they will be made permanent.
The debate has affected this year's congressional races in Northern Virginia, where tax cuts and the national economy feature prominently in candidates' platforms.
In the 8th district, incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D), opposed both rounds of tax cuts, saying they would exacerbate the deficit and put pressure on domestic programs.
"We could see it coming," he said. "It was obvious that we didn't have the money to pay for [tax cuts] and so unless we were going to cut spending on other programs dramatically it was all going to be paid for out of the social security and medicare trust fund."
The tax cuts, he said, were a political favor to the Bush administration's Republican base.
"It was the only thing they had to appease their base," he said. "They hadn't recommended any new programs and so they figured we'll give you back more of your money. Unfortunately what they've done is to give them more debt."
Not surprisingly, Moran's opponent, Republican Lisa Marie Cheney, of Alexandria, has a different take. To her, the tax cuts are a way of making the system fairer.
"I think they are equally spread across the population, no matter what your tax bracket."
She noted particularly that the Bush administration has worked to address the so-called "marriage penalty" and the "death tax."
"Why should you be penalized for getting married? That doesn't make any sense," she said. It's not fair for married couples to pay more in taxes when they're filing jointly than if they were to file separately, she added.
On the estate tax, Cheney said: "If you're a small business owner, why should your heirs be penalized?"
Jim Hurysz, an independent running for Congress, called the tax cuts "very unfair" and said he would have voted against them.
Like Moran, Hurysz said the tax cuts would drive the country deeper into debt.
"Of course we have to pay interest on the national debt and that's taking money away from things we need like infrastructure," he said.
ACCORDING TO Richard Kogan, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that the Bush administration's 2001 and 2003 rounds and tax cuts is responsible for about 54 percent of the federal deficit, which now stands at $422 billion. The rest is attributable to increased spending, mostly in areas such as defense and homeland security.
"In 2004 at least, tax cuts amounted to more than all the spending increases for all sources together," he said.
But Cheney said the economic incentive brought about by the tax cuts would help turn the deficit around.
"History has proven that large tax cuts stimulate the economy," she said.
Cheney said she and her husband put their tax refund towards their children's college fund and towards charitable contributions.
To Hurysz, the deficit will make it very difficult to get federal money to fund infrastructure improvements in the 8th district.
"Inside the Beltway we have a lot of aging infrastructure," he said.
Moran, one of the original sponsors of 1993's Balanced Budget Act, also sounded concerned about the deficit.
"The deficit of $422 billion is more than we spend on transportation, education, health research and law enforcement per year," he said.
The tax cuts did provide some short-term help to the economy, he said, "but it doesn't have much long-term effect. The problem with the long term is that these deficits are going to increase interest rates."