We’ve Been Betrayed for Longer Than Three Decades… And We Resent It

It’s not secret that conservatives everywhere are still reeling in mixed reactions of disgust and disbelief over the McDonnell-Howell $1.3 billion transportation tax hike.  Already, certain leaders that were absolutely silent just a week before are already clawing their way back into the spotlight, trying to make themselves the leader of the opposition, while those who did indeed spearhead the resistance are exhausted.

I oppose this tax increase, body and soul.  It was wrong, regressive, punitive towards working class families, susceptible to economic recession, and worse of all a compromise on a compromise — a bastard bill only a state legislature could love.   Worse than this, even from the floor of the House of Delegates, you have Democrats pledging to chase down the additional $400 million in transportation revenue they did not get this year.

Does that sound like a compromise to you?

D.J. Spiker opines on the falsetto shrills of outrage that seem to permeate the skies every time a Republican raises taxes.  To wit:

I get it. The Republican Party doesn’t raise taxes. Ever. That was cute in the 1980s. Here we are thirty years later, the majority of a nation that is center-right, where we are, says that they would pay more in taxes to pay down the debt/deficit/etc. The majority of the Commonwealth says raise the gas tax to get me out of traffic, congestion, tunnels, etc.

If you think we’re going to get out of the crippling national debt we have, reduce an annual $1.5 trillion deficit without raising revenues in some form…there’s no polite way to finish that statement.

We put ourselves into this mess. We elected leaders who fell into the traps of big government. Who raised the amount of spending in Richmond and Washington. And then we reelected them. And again. And again. And again. And again. Then we nominate them for office again once they lose. We’ve fallen under a spell of Republican leadership for the past three decades that has been a sham. Our Republican leaders failed us and failed the state when they did nothing for transportation. Our Republican leaders failed us and failed the country when they passed trillions in tax cuts with no way to pay for it. Was the extra $300 a year worth the thousands you, I and the next generations to come will have to pay in order to solve our fiscal crisis?

Red meat for those who have it figured out that we don’t climb out of a $1.5 trillion deficit or a $16 trillion debt hole without buying a ladder — namely, raising taxes and closing loopholes.

But we’re not talking about the federal budget.  Nor are we talking about Reagan in 1983.

We’re talking about Virginia — today.

We’re talking about whether or not, in a $90 billion budget with a sitting Republican governor who campaigned on not raising taxes to pay for transportation, who had in hand a 2010 audit identifying over $1 billion in fiscal waste at VDOT — why a Gordian knot of taxes needed to be raised in order to avert “certain fiscal disaster” (TM).

* * *

Let me take a step back and opine on the checkered political career of Shaun Kenney for just a moment.  I ran in 2005 against a tax-hiking Republican and came within 383 votes of making it happen.  When I ran again in 2009 at the behest of local conservatives in Fluvanna County, it was in reaction to a Democratic-majority who was engaged in all sorts of last-minute tax deals and municipal bond activity, most notably a $70 million high school voted up in December 2009 at the worst possible moment in the bond market — in a locality where the county budget was only $65 million.

The day the bonds were passed, it was an instant 21 cent tax increase to pay for the school alone, plus an additional 3-4 cents to operate the building.  The Democrats were trounced at the polls, and Fluvanna County’s tax rate — then at 50 cents — was at 75 cents just to pay for the high school alone.

Add to it the impact of the recession, some budgetary dirty pool, and other needs within the county… and the report we got back from our auditors had us at $1.22 in five years if we continued along our current trajectory.

So what did the supervisors in Fluvanna County do?  We raised taxes.  60 cents — a mere 10 cent increase with millions cut from the operational side of the budget, avoiding the lions share of the fiscal hammer that was all but certain to drop back in 2009.

How did the local Tea Party and the conservatives react?  “Not well” would be an understatement.

You see, unlike virtually every other blogger in Virginia, I am not only a public official, I have committed the worst of all cardinal sins against Republican orthodoxy — I have raised taxes.  

This is a fact that is consistently thrown in my face from time to time.  One can only shrug… because the options of (1) allowing taxes to go screaming through the roof or (2) slashing public education and county services to inoperable levels simply was not going to happen on my watch.   Teddy Roosevelt was right about the man in the arena after all.

In order for conservative values to have any strength, they must be applied to the actual act of governance.  That means allowing government to function along the principles of free minds, free markets, and free societies without robbing individuals of what they can do for themselves in the name of paternalism.  Beyond what individuals cannot do for themselves, people ought to be left to their own devices and merits as best as they can forge them in this world.  Yet the basic bonds that tie our society together — our laws and its application i.e. government — must endure.

A very wise man told me once upon a time, “Politics is easy; governing is hard.”

…and he was right.

So there you have it.  I am no ideologue, but neither am I a moderate.  Our principles must be able govern in practice, otherwise conservatism will be regulated to freshman political science courses and bar room philosophers.

* * *

Fast forward to the HB2313 — the compromise on the compromise, the dog no one will adopt.

Critics of the transportation tax hike are often challenged with the question “So what’s your transportation plan?” with the smug assurance that the critics have neither thought it through nor understand the political process.  We all expect good roads, until there’s a pothole in front of our house… then all of the sudden, all that secret socialism comes out in a rush and — dammit, don’t I pay taxes for this?! — that pothole better get fixed yesterday.

Of course, the witty repartee to such a question is “That’s your job to sort out, thank you very much…”

That right there *is* the crux of the angst against McDonnell’s tax hike.

It would be one thing if McDonnell leveled with voters in 2009 and argued that transportation was too big a problem to solve within the confines of the budget.  That then-Governor Tim Kaine was right.  That transportation required not just mere tweaking, but systemic reform.  That the reforms may cost McDonnell his political legacy, but such is the price of good government… and that if other delegates and senators were willing to join him, and Virginians were willing to elect him, then McDonnell would be proud to serve Virginia as its next governor.

…and watch Creigh Deeds trip over his own shoelaces in response.

Instead, what did Virginians get from then-Attorney General cum Governor McDonnell?   Read my lips…

The rest was history.

* * *

So long as we’re on the topic of actual solutions to transportation, allow me to speculate on just a handful of the solutions we could have applied beyond raising taxes in Virginia — for a start:

(1)  Disband the Commonwealth Transportation Board.  Revise the six year plan — or abolish it.  Fix the allocations to localities to reflect true need (e.g. cars on the road) rather than esoteric 20th century benchmarks such as who-lives-in-which-locality-back-in-1960.  Heck — abolish the six year plan altogether and focus on the need as they arise.

(2)  Repair the Transportation Trust Fund.  Emphasis on “trust” folks — quit raiding it, and dedicate a stable funding source.

(3)  Mileage * weight of car = user fee for roads.  Include it on your income tax form, weigh the balance when the deed is transferred.  That way, grandma who goes back and forth to the grocery store once a week and puts relatively little wear and tear on the road isn’t taxed in the same antediluvian manner as the 18-wheeler with a full load bearing down on roads designed in the 1930s.

(4)  Toll booths as truckers exit Virginia.  Sorry guys… the gasoline tax at Carmel Church ain’t gonna save you forever.

(5)  Public-private partnerships for roads.  Speaker Howell endorsed the idea in 2004:

“House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who met Thursday with members of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, suggested streamlining public-private partnerships on transportation. One “no-brainer,” he said, is to require that transportation funds be put in a “lockbox” so they cannot be diverted.” —-Warner Offers $824 Million Transportation Plan (washingtonpost.com), December 10, 2004

Now there’s a wild idea.

(6)  Abolish the fees and taxes associated with transportation and fold it into a flat income tax.  Newsflash for state policymakers: we might be opposed to tax hikes, but they’re a lot easier to get around when Virginia taxpayers understand precisely where our money is going.  Truth in taxation goes a LONG way towards restoring confidence in our institutions and our government.

(7)  Forget light rail and mass transit — focus on incentives that reduce the need for Virginians to drive to work.  We’re a service economy — there’s no need for Virginians to be on the road driving to work when they can walk 20 feet to a computer.  This isn’t the 1920s anymore… or the 1850s when you work by the whistle.  Jim Bacon over at Bacon’s Rebellion has long argued that one of the solutions to transportation is to change work patterns.  Building more roads to accommodate more traffic is like buying another dog to get rid of the existing dog’s fleas.

(8)  How’s about enacting those VDOT reforms we found back in 2010?  Or better ideas: Obenshain’s jest about issuing hunting licenses for drones was hilarious, but let’s discuss options.  How’s about legalizing then taxing online gaming in Virginia?  Introducing Colorado style gaming?  Getting 100% (or more) of what we should be getting from the federal government from the federal gasoline tax?   Points #3 and #4 above?

Now is that a comprehensive list?  Probably not… but it’s outside of the box thinking that never saw the light of day in the public square.

* * *

So the cynic asks:  Well now, Mr. Kenney — fine job.  McDonnell raises taxes and he’s the deputy assistant Antichrist  and you raise taxes and it’s a free pass?  Got it, bro… you suck… go burn…

That would be the easy and dismissive answer to a conscience rubbed raw with second guesses, I know.

Here’s the difference.  In 2009 when I ran for Board of Supervisors, not once did I use the words “I will not raise taxes to pay off this debt service.”  Opposed to tax increases?  Yes.  Fight to get the best solution possible for taxpayers?  Yes… but no sane person was going to argue that in the wake of a $70 million debt issuance, a tax increase wasn’t coming.

McDonnell ran on the promise that he would not raise taxes for transportation.  It was the centerpiece of his “Bob’s 4 Jobs” campaign.  

Bob McDonnell went back on his word.

That hurts.

* * *

The $1.3 billion transportation tax hike has constitutional problems, no question.  Several things could happen between now and when Governor McDonnell holds the pen:

(1)  The bill could fix the unconstitutional portions and try its luck in the veto session.
(2)  Cuccinelli could challenge the bill on its constitutional merits, or a third party could do so (Delegate Marshall is already leading the charge on this front).
(3)  McDonnell could do the right thing… and veto the bill outright.

Personally, I hope and pray Governor McDonnell does the third.

The other two are particularly bloody.

Otherwise, this?

…will be the only true legacy McDonnell will leave behind.

* * *

Conservatives owe it to themselves to learn not only how to win, but to govern.  Beyond all of this, conservatives equally owe it to ourselves to run based on character rather than quick sound clips.  Most of all — stick to your word when you give it.

Above all else, understand how circumstances change promises.  Anyone who gave a promise in 2006 not to cut government was forced to be made a liar by 2010 after the Great Recession forced events.  Politicians should be as dynamic as possible in order to offer dynamic government.  Those things that constrain — whether they are pledges, a 24/7 media that prevents members of the opposite side of the fence from getting dinner, or whiny and persistent bloggers — all hurt our republican form of government when taken to extremes.

When they operate correctly and within realism, they enhance that process.

I empathize entirely with McDonnell and Bolling’s desire for common sense in the conservative movement.  The emphasis should be on conservative values, not the rhetoric of common sense as an excuse for the lowest common denominator.

As for conservative outrage over tax increases when personal incomes are shrinking, it’s genuine and real.  Equal pressures from a floundering jobs market, inflation eating away at savings and retirements, and the increased cost of government at every level.  Our tax code makes no sense, taxpayers have no idea what they are funding, and America’s relative position in the world is in decline.  The national debt is unsupportable, our levels of spending unsustainable, and bureaucrats are masterful at holding critical areas of government hostage while leaving the waste and fat untouched — all to keep the Leviathan healthy and strong.

HB2313 was the wrong solution at the wrong time — a treatment of mere symptoms while the cure, while achievable —  lays beyond the reach of the political courage of our legislators.  Every family in Virginia must live within a budget.  When they can’t, they cut things they can’t afford or find a second (or third… or fourth) job.  Legislators may resist by saying that the only tools we have at our disposal are tax increases, but this isn’t precisely true, now is it?  Other sources of revenue are there; better ways of doing business are there.

But doing that would require true leadership.  Rejecting this fog would require character.

* * *

The best place to start reaching for that legacy of character would be to start campaigning as one intends to govern, then governing as you campaigned.   In this, HB2313 wasn’t just the most massive tax increase in Virginia’s 400 plus year history — it was every bit the massive betrayal of both conservatism and principle ever crafted or devised.  It was policy shop nonsense crafted by the esoteric rather than straight-level and to-the-point common sense talk.

So why do conservatives feel so betrayed by the pledges and the politicians?  D.J. Spiker brings us full circle:

Doing nothing is/was no longer an option. Blame Bob McDonnell? Okay, but only so long as you’re also blaming George Allen, Jim Gilmore, the Republican House and Senate 2001 – 2005 who dropped the ball and left this session to fix the mess they left us. Blame the House who has had fifteen years to put together a transportation proposal. Blame the General Assembly who refused to pass ABC privatization, reducing the size of government and bringing in new revenue to state without raising taxes (two core Republican principles) at the same time.

We are losing the PR battle, and losing badly. This isn’t about minority outreach. It’s not about votes. We as a party have allowed the Republicans leaders we elect to do or not do whatever they wanted without any ramifications. There were no consequences to the votes our elected officials have made that spent, raised and put the nation further in debt. That let our roads literally crumble and dissolve. That let traffic back up for miles on a daily basis.

Level with the people and campaign on character, or quit pretending this isn’t about power and the levers of power and stick with bumper sticker policies.  If you have to raise taxes, then take it to the people first.  If you don’t intend to ever do so, then stick to your word once it’s given.

If conservative principles cannot govern, then say so. If they can… do so.

We elect the leaders we deserve, after all.