Mount Vernon In last week's Gazette, local politicians Supervisor Dan Storck, School Board Member Karen Corbett Sanders and state Sen. Scott Surovell explained why they support the Meals Tax Referendum that is on next week's election ballot. I take no issue with the Board of Supervisors (BOS) putting a meals tax referendum on the ballot for voters to decide. I do take strong issue, however, with the dishonest way by which its political proponents have promoted it. I do not use the word "dishonest" lightly but in this case it is inescapable and unfortunately applies to the three politicians identified above.
In the Storck-Sanders joint statement, they say, definitively, that revenue generated from the resulting meals tax would be used to "make teacher salaries more competitive and decrease class sizes ...". The truth is there is no assurance this would be the case. The reason why is quite simple but not revealed by these politicians: enactment of the meals tax provides no guarantee that additional revenue will flow to our school system from the BOS nor does it guarantee increases in teacher salaries or reduction in class sizes. The BOS decides how much money it will send to the school system. Last year, the number was $1.7 billion. Enactment of the meals tax only means that the BOS will be legally obligated to appropriate 70 percent of the revenue generated from the meals tax to the school system. The $70 million estimate is only about 4 percent of last year's $1.7 billion allocation to the school system. The BOS is free to reduce the allocation from resources other than those derived from the meals tax by the same amount generated by the meals tax so that the school board still receives $1.7 billion and the BOS has $70 million to spend elsewhere. Money is indeed fungible. Additionally, the school board decides how to spend money it receives. There is no guarantee the school board will increase teacher salaries or reduce class sizes. If the BOS does not increase their allocation, they are unlikely to do so.
Storck and Sanders also try to justify the meals tax by explaining that "Over 200 jurisdictions in the Commonwealth of Virginia currently have a tax on prepared meals, including most of those surrounding Fairfax County." This misleading comment does not inform voters that only 21 percent of Northern Virginia residents live in jurisdictions subject to a meals tax and the only jurisdictions where a meals tax has been enacted are those where a referendum was not required. Those meals taxes were enacted by Boards of Supervisors. There is no meals tax in Prince William County, Loudoun County or Fairfax County, all of which require voters to approve it.
As to the question of teacher salaries, I understand that although teacher salaries in Fairfax County are lower than those in adjacent jurisdictions, pension benefits are higher. Why doesn't our school board consider reducing pension benefits and use the money to increase teacher salaries?
Senator Surovell makes similar arguments to those of Storck and Sanders. Of the three politicians, he is the one who can go to Richmond to advocate for an increase in the 23 percent of the tax revenue, sent to Richmond from County taxpayers from income taxes, sales taxes and real estate transfer taxes, that is returned to Fairfax County. A 3 percent increase (to 26 percent) would cover all revenue estimated to be generated by the meals tax without requiring an additional tax.
In recent correspondence with BOS Chairman Sharon Bulova, who makes similar arguments in favor of the meals tax, I said this: "Whether the Referendum passes or is defeated, don't you want to be thought of as a Chairman who played it straight down the middle, giving voters all the information they need to make an informed choice and letting the chips fall where they may? This is not about politics — it is about honesty and integrity." The same comments equally apply to Mr. Storck, Mrs. Sanders and Mr. Surovell. The dishonesty employed by our local politicians in an effort to pull the Referendum over the finish line is counterproductive in the long term because whether or not the Referendum is approved, voters and non-voting residents will have concluded that our local politicians do not honestly deal with their constituents concerning issues of importance. Dishonest politicians should not be rewarded with a victory. Irrespective of the alleged merit of a meals tax, voters should vote "no" to send a message that their elected representatives must deal with them honestly and with integrity.
H. Jay Spiegel