Sweet Virginia: Let?s Vote!

Posted: Mar 07, 2004 12:00 AM

The oldest legislature in the nation, the Virginia General Assembly, is a tax and budget train-wreck. It is also Exhibit A in the case against the politicians who have hijacked our system of citizen-controlled government.

That Virginia politicians want to raise taxes isn?t surprising. It seems politicians everywhere always want to raise taxes. Human wants and needs are insatiable, able to suck any revenue stream dry, no matter how wide or deep. Legislators are constantly besieged by those seeking ever-larger reserves from the ever-expanding reservoir--and always will be.

But, our finances are not so elastic. Our wants and needs at home must be limited by our incomes or stores of saved wealth. The wants and needs that politicians wish to meet must be tempered by having to gain the consent of the governed.

Jefferson, Washington, Madison--Virginia's great ghosts--all understood and supported the concept of governing only by the consent of the governed. Governor Mark Warner and many in the legislature do not.

Virginia's one-term limit has led to a string of governors who promised not to raise taxes or to cut certain taxes. Then, amazingly, they actually kept their word. But not Governor Warner, who incidentally wants to end the one-term limit.

Oh, sure, in his 2001 campaign, Warner did the promising-not-to-raise-taxes part, defining himself as "someone who understands that government has to live within its means. Someone who will not raise your taxes." He merely skipped the keeping-his-word part.

An Uncool Billion

Warner cannot claim to have misunderstood the public, however. In 2002, Warner took his case for higher taxes to the people of both Northern Virginia and the Tidewater area: he sponsored a tax hike referendum for transportation. Both areas suffer from terrible traffic congestion and Governor Warner stumped aggressively for the increase. But though the pro-referendum forces heavily outspent those opposed, the tax hike went down in flames.

Then, as the 2003 legislative elections approached, Warner spoke of the need for tax "reform." But tellingly, he chose not to divulge his plan until after the election was over. He was up to something, but what?

Having promised not to raise taxes, having been defeated at the polls on a tax hike and having refused to take the issue to the voters in an election year, the Governor now calls for a $1 billion tax increase.

But it gets worse.

The Lack of Money is the Root of All Evil

That the governor breaks his word and pushes a tax hike may be disappointing, but surely the Republican lawmakers would stop Warner's betrayal. After all, they took both chambers of the legislature in 2001 largely on their anti-tax image. But no. The Republican-controlled state Senate has seen his $1 billion tax hike and raised it to $3.9 billion--the largest tax increase in state history.

Republican Senator John Chichester, a 26-year veteran of the capitol, and 16-year incumbent Senator William Wampler are leading the Republican?s swift retreat on taxes. Wampler argues, "There just isn?t enough money."

Taxpayers know the feeling.

Only Speaker William Howell and a band of anti-tax legislators in the House of Delegates have stood against this legislative treachery. The House passed a budget with $522 million in higher taxes gleaned by ending certain tax exemptions for businesses. Sadly, the House has signaled a willingness for further hikes, but still the House, Senate, and Governor have come to no agreement.

To avert a government shutdown, Speaker Howell proposed a referendum on the matter: Put the tax package on the ballot and let the voters decide.

Governor Warner immediately rejected the idea. When he had pushed his own referendum, he said it was "exactly what I promised in my campaign" and allowed voters "the right to decide for themselves." Now Warner says, "I?m not going to turn Virginia into California."

Yet Virginia has become quite a bit like California. Not, alas, by allowing citizens a voice in cleaning up after the politicians--a direct vote just last week proved its value in the west, when Californians went to the polls to set a better course for their state. But Virginia, from 1997 to 2002, did manage to best California in per capita growth in government spending. California spending rose at a breakneck 46 percent, but Virginia's rose a whopping 56 percent.

Peter Ferrara of the Virginia Club for Growth points out that the "governor's own budget report shows that state spending can increase 11 percent in the new budget without any tax increase." And yet now they demand even more money.

And they don?t want to ask; they want to dictate. This is even more troubling than the dollars and cents of the issue. The politicians and the press show utter disregard for the people they supposedly serve.

Senator Chichester, for example, dismissed the idea of a referendum: "To put it off on someone else to do our work for us is probably not in the best interests of the citizens of the commonwealth." What a twist: massive sympathy for the burdens of voting, while giving a cold shoulder to the burdens of taxation.

Taxpayers Don?t Count

The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg editorialized against a referendum, arguing that "Joe Virginia is apt to vote his personal interest?.And even Joe's long-term interests are ill-served if decays in state services cause his children to be less educated, his travel on state roads to be more torturous, his medical care to cost more as hospitals shift expenses due to state Medicaid parsimony, and all his local and state levies to eventually rise because good employers have fled a state in shambles, narrowing the tax base."

According to this elitist vision, Joe Virginia isn't smart enough to know that the government can do better for him with his money than he can do for himself. So, for his own good, he must be cut out of the loop.

But who's being dumb, here? The citizens who object to spiraling increases in taxes, or the elitists who think that tax increases and ballooning government provide a good base for business growth?

Fortunately, not all politicians are this out of touch. Republican U.S. Senator George Allen and former Democratic Governor Doug Wilder (America's first black governor), to their enormous credit, did speak out in favor of the referendum in a joint statement:

"The effort to exclude the everyday citizens from the current tax debate has been so successful that the voice of the ordinary hard-working Virginia taxpayer is hardly being heard in Richmond today. . . . Because the people of Virginia were promised their taxes would not be raised, we believe our fellow citizens deserve an opportunity to vote by referendum before such broken promises are enacted into law."

Unfortunately, this kind of wisdom is uncommon today. Even Speaker Howell, who proposed the measure, has in the past called legislative use of referenda "passing the buck." He forgets that in a democratic republic, the buck always and ultimately turns back to the people.

When the political giants of Virginia?s storied past brought us a system of representative government, the average person gained a greater voice in governance. Today?s political leaders speak of representative government as a system designed to deny the average person such a voice.

What Happened?

Government became a big business. Big government needs big money and sometimes taxpayers say no. Thus, taxpayers must not be represented.

"Representative government" has become a euphemism for un representative government. Much of the political and media elite prefer rule by an enlightened elite--namely, them. In the name of representing our best interests, of course--interests that we are not bright enough to discover on our own.

Thus, the elite view the election of representatives not as a division of labor, a time-saving device designed to serve the public will while most of us work our real jobs. Instead, they view representative government as an opportunity to wrest power from the unwashed and unwise masses.

We need serious structural reforms: Term limits to keep legislators closer to the people and the citizen initiative process to give citizens the power to check the legislature. The people are supposed to be in charge. Right?

Voters in Oregon just squashed a tax increase by using their state?s initiative and referendum process to place the legislature?s tax hike on the ballot. In Virginia, we have no such process to check our politicians. We need one.

Granted, we cannot trust the people to always be right, but we can certainly trust them more than the politicians. There is a truly American answer to what ails our politics: When in doubt, let the voters represent themselves.