Political Hay

Anatomy of a Mugging

How a Democrat governor turned the tables on Republicans in a GOP-dominated state.

By 4.20.04

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If Virginia's Democratic governor set out to make the Republican legislature look incompetent, he has succeeded beyond all measure. One would have thought that a Republican majority in both House and Senate could keep taxes from rising, but it's actually eased the process.

It all started earlier this year when Governor Mark Warner proposed the state's largest tax increase ever: a $1 billion hike. In a move that must have delighted him, prominent members of the Senate -- that is, the Republican Senate -- quickly proposed a tax hike almost twice that. The House of Delegates played the part of bitter holdout for a bit, but it's been over 40 days since the General Assembly should have produced a budget and Republicans let their Newt-like fears of a government standstill get the better of them.

Last Tuesday, the House of Delegates voted to raise taxes by nearly $750 million. This elephantine increase still falls $850 million short of the Senate's own version. The Senate is likely to add more spending into the bill today before sending it back to the House for approval this afternoon. No matter the outcome, the House, and the poor people of Virginia, have already lost in this high stakes game of five card draw.

IN OUR ANATOMY OF a mugging, let it be noted that Warner worked closely with the Senate to pin House Republicans to the wall. Typically, legislators can renew existing programs without voting on tax hikes. This year, Warner trapped legislators so that they couldn't vote against his hike without him vetoing the budget.

Since old school liberal Republican Senators had happily joined the governor's tax increase squad in the name of responsible governance, anti-tax politicians were accused of forestalling the budget process, a charge that resonated with local papers, including the goo-goos at the Washington Post. Never mind that it was the governor who forcibly joined tax and appropriation legislation to increase the likelihood of his tax hike passing.

In fact the truly obstructionist Warner isn't letting anything get in the way of his tax increases, including the will of the people. He won't let Virginians decide on tax increases via referendum -- perhaps because a similar voter referendum failed in two of Virginia's most populous counties just last year. In a move that should brand him as a true obsessive, Warner would not even consider an interim budget, to allow government function while the tax decision was made.

Rumors have long been circulating that Warner has designs to run for the U.S. Senate (having lost in 1996), or as John Kerry's running mate against George W. Bush, and he has never denied them. This could help to explain his determination: He will win nationwide recognition if he manages, as a Democrat, to ram a bipartisan tax hike through the legislature of an anti-tax, Republican, Southern state.

Warner's prospects would have fallen to pieces if Republicans managed to hold out against his tax hike. Some truly spendthrift Republican Senators, led by Finance Committee chair John Chichester, helped the governor's cause by seeing his proposal and raising it another billion, but as long as the House refused all tax increases, it would have been possible to restructure the budget without soaking the taxpayers.

If Virginia didn't have a budget on July 1, the blame would have fallen on Warner's shoulders. The governor has made some cuts to the budget, but even so it is set to grow at 11 percent before future tax hike revenues are even accounted for. His whole proposal would have added 13 percent to last year's budget.

BUT THE HOUSE CHOSE to duck the issue of a pending budget explosion when it passed a resolution to raise $500 million over the next two years by "closing corporate loopholes." The Delegates in the House claimed they were tired of tax hike pressure from businesses hoping to win new contracts from new projects proposed in the budget. The idea was to structure the increase in such a way that it would fall hardest on those businesses and thus kill support for more spending.

It didn't work. According to Delegate Jeff Frederick (R-Prince William County), who has consistently refused tax increases, "The House made a fundamental mistake by acknowledging -- mistakenly in my opinion -- that we need more revenue." By exchanging tactics for principles, they lost the debate.

Now, instead of addressing whether the state needs more taxes, the debate has shifted to the how big the increase will be. The House bill has gone to the Senate for approval and already Senators are saying things like "It certainly is a good start" and "It's got to be juiced up." Last Tuesday, Warner praised "a number of legislators who took a brave and courageous vote today. They put aside partisan politics and stepped up for Virginia."

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