Friday, March 05, 2004

God Bless the House GOP: "Referendum or gridlock" forever!

Mark Dorroh

I'm the type of Republican who probably spends more time getting mad at my party as I do supporting it, but every so often, elements of the Grand Old Party get it right. This week, I was frankly thrilled to see the Republican Virginia House of Delegates majority put its foot down on the question of tax hikes. The "referendum or gridlock" stand taken by House Speaker William Howell and his supporters may or may not still be alive by the time this column is published, but it is an idea whose time has come.

I agree with our own Delegate Riley Ingram, who says the House plan to raise taxes by half-a-billion dollars for absolute necessities is the way to go.

In this correspondent's opinion, anything beyond that should be decided by the people. To the argument, "We don't want to become California," I can only say anyone who can't tell the difference between Virginia and California, with or without a one-time referendum on tax rates, isn't paying close attention. Unlike California, Virginia citizens can't get a referendum question on the ballot merely with a serious petition drive; here, our elected leaders must make the call.

And what ever happened to the love of referenda evinced by our governor when he ran for office? Did the dual defeat of local option tax hikes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads suddenly change everything he believed about the wisdom of voters? When a bedrock principle gets wiped out by situational reality, it implies to the casual observer that the principle wasn't very solidly held to begin with. Such apparent cynicism bodes not well the next time a candidate professes to deeply believe in something during an election cycle.

The other argument against a tax referendum is that "leaders are abdicating their responsibility to govern" by turning selected decisions over to the electorate. Well, maybe. But in a Democratic Republic such as ours, the dynamic between leaders and constituents has always been a subtle and ever-changing one. The Constitution recognizes referendum and recall as essential voter rights; even the founding fathers recognized that sometimes elected officials don't know it all.

Senate Republicans, whose tax hike package exceeds even that of the governor, need to dial it down a bit and quit casting aspersions on their brothers and sisters in the House. There's no dereliction of responsibility here, just recognition of unusual budget times which call for an unusual budget fix.

And what, precisely, is the problem with asking the opinion of the people who pay the tab and have to live with the consequences? We have a very well-educated state here; most Virginians are perfectly competent to deal with complex issues. Do the governor and Senate Republicans think they'll suddenly turn stupid when confronted with a hard choice?

There's a fine line between executing one's duty as an elected leader and being an elitist who thinks voters are unqualified to set their own priorities. Sure, elected officials have the benefit of devoting their full attention to the issues during General Assembly sessions. But that shouldn't exclude the rest of us from the process, especially in weird budget times such as the one we're living in now. It would seem to this correspondent the best bet would be a vigorous public education campaign with both sides presenting their best case to voters, followed by a referendum.

Having said all that, let me say this: As stated before in this space, my distaste for state tax rate increases is based in a couple of understandings, both of them historically verifiable. First, no matter how much money government spends on perceived public needs, it will never be enough to satisfy every citizen. And then there's the small matter of the extra billion dollars in projected revenues left over after all state budget needs were funded in 2000. If General Assembly had left that money in the fund balance, it would have been earning interest and would have been available to patch revenue shortfalls caused by the bubble bursting and the post-9/11 expenses of homeland security. But, sadly, that's not what happened. What happened was (drum roll), every blessed dime was spent by a General Assembly which had already covered 100 percent of legitimate state needs.

Just for fun, let's analyze that occurrence in familial microcosm: If your son or daughter had a sudden windfall of $1,000, went out and blew it all, then came to you a year or two later whining about not having enough money, what would you say? A responsible parent would call attention to the $1,000 and hope the kid learned a valuable lesson about saving and spending.

We, the voters, are in the position of parents to the General Assembly. Unless we force members to face the consequences of their profligacy, we have no one to blame but ourselves as taxes steadily rise, workers are bled white by taxation approaching confiscatory levels, and the almighty state exerts progressively more influence over our family budgets and private lives.

Let's not blow the chance to make our childish legislators learn from their mistakes. I say, "Referendum or gridlock forever!"

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