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Commentary: Smoke and Mirrors

One of my mentors in my earliest years in the General Assembly was Delegate Dorothy McDiarmid who served off and on from 1960 to 1989. First elected on a platform of keeping the public schools open during racial desegregation, the gentlelady from Fairfax Mrs. McDiarmid went on to successfully add kindergarten to the public school system of the state and to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Her supporters gave her the campaign slogan, “The Lady Has Clout.” Delegate McDiarmid taught me to look carefully at political proposals for many lacked substance and were simply “smoke and mirrors.”

I thought of Delegate McDiarmid as I reviewed Governor McDonnell’s transportation funding proposals last week. I was delighted at the governor’s clear statement that more revenue is needed to support our highway construction and maintenance needs. He even proposed $300 million more in much-needed state support of Phase Two of the Silver Line. Unfortunately, his proposed funding solutions seemed to me and many others to be smoke and mirrors.

Estimates of the needed funding for transportation in the commonwealth range from one to one-and-a-half billion dollars. The governor’s proposal is projected to increase to just over $800 million in 2018, but the projection is open to question. It assumes that the U.S. Congress will pass the Marketplace Equity Act to provide a sales tax on Internet sales. The bill has been in the works for about a decade, and its prospect for passage in the current climate in the Congress is not an assumption that I think is safe to rest Virginia’s highway building program on.

At a time when taxation is at its height of unpopularity the governor proposes to shift taxation from the users of the road by eliminating the gas tax and shifting it to all Virginia consumers through the sales tax. The gas tax could be equated to a user fee that comes from Virginia drivers and those passing through the state, but the regressive sales tax will be paid regardless of how much you use the roads. The theory of the change is that with the better gas mileage that cars now get gas tax revenue will continue to decline. Virginia’s current gas tax rate—one of the lowest in the country—has not been changed since 1986.

Another questionable element in the proposal is that additional general funds would be transferred to transportation use. Already the demands on the general fund exceed the availability of monies. Reductions continue to be made in education, mental health and other important programs because of scarce general funds.

The legislature needs to act this year to provide funding for transportation, and I am prepared to vote for additional revenue. When I strain to see through the smoke and distorted images that surround the governor’s proposals, I think his plan comes up short of being the best we can and must do.