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Column: Let’s Put Pragmatism Over Ideology

As the halfway point of this year’s General Assembly session quickly approaches, our attention has turned to the state’s two-year budget. I believe strongly that budgets are moral documents that determine whom we lift up and whom we leave out. Governor McDonnell’s proposed budget includes some laudable new spending on higher education, economic development, and shoring up the state employee pension trust fund. However, Governor McDonnell puts Grover Nordquist’s No Tax Pledge ahead of the needs of the most vulnerable Virginians, so he is making these worthy investments by balancing the budget on the backs of children and the poor.

By changing the way state money for public education is calculated, Governor McDonnell hopes to cut about $100 million per year from public schools, and he is slashing $65 million from money schools in Northern Virginia use to account for our high cost of living. While on the one hand he is blocking state implementation of the federal health care reform law and arguing that the law is unconstitutional, on the other hand he is using that very federal law as an excuse to slash funds from the neighborhood health clinics that serve our community’s poorest residents. At the same time, in the name of economic development, Governor McDonnell is expanding a series of tax loopholes that will result in tens of millions in lost revenue.

While I support some of Governor McDonnell’s proposed new investments, they cannot come at the expense of children and the poor. Instead, we need new revenue. That point was underscored recently by the fact that Del. Lacey Putney, the conservative chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a bill to raise $900 million in new revenue through a statewide sales tax increase. During five decades in the General Assembly, Putney has built a reputation as a tax hawk who can squeeze every last ounce of spending from the state budget. When the conservative responsible for writing the House version of the budget says we need more revenue, legislators and the governor ought to pay attention. Unfortunately, the No Tax Pledge crowd who now dominates Richmond tabled Putney’s proposal.

Rather than adhere to hidebound ideologies, I believe we need to take a pragmatic approach to taxation. There are taxes I abhor and continue working to get rid of, and there are taxes I think are reasonable and necessary. For example, the state sales tax on groceries disproportionately affects the poor, and our overreliance on local real estate taxes drives up the cost of housing for people struggling to make ends meet. However, income taxes are inherently linked to one’s ability to pay them, and the gas tax is both a user fee and a carbon tax. Rather than taking a hard line for or against taxes, leaders ought to be able to work together to strike the right balance.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my years in the General Assembly, it’s that the governor’s proposed budget is but an opening bid. The Virginia Constitution puts the final power over the budget in the hands of the General Assembly, and we will be pouring over the details over the next several weeks to come up with a budget to keep Virginia moving forward. I will be keeping a watchful eye over how the budget affects children and the poor, sick, elderly, and disabled, and I will continue working to steer the final budget in a thoughtful and fiscally responsible direction. Please share your ideas and feedback at DelDEnglin@house.virginia.gov.

By David Englin

State Delegate (D-45)