Political Hay

Memo to Gov. Warner: Sixty-Five Spells Defeat

Virginia's taxing governor seems never to have heard of Alabama.

By 12.1.03

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Virginia Gov. Mark Warner evoked the Deep South last week to rationalize his $1 billion tax increase, saying that if low-taxes were the "criteria for success" then "Alabama and Mississippi would be leading the nation." As an Alabama man with a fondness for Mississippi women, I proudly ignore such condescension from neoyankees like Warner, but I'll gladly offer the governor some advice.

First, he could've looked straight across his Northern boundary for a more familiar cause-and-affect example of taxation. If high-taxes alone were the criteria for success, there'd be an exodus of his constituents across the Potomac River into Washington, D.C., where per-pupil spending is the highest in the nation and nearly every tax is higher. So, what's Washington leading the nation in right now? Terrible schools for starters, but murder and urban blight are always close seconds.

However, if Warner would like a relevant example from Alabama, here's a whopper: we just rejected our own billion-dollar tax increase by a 2-1 margin, and Virginia might concur if a photograph in last week's Washington Post reveals Warner's strategy. The picture was of the governor standing beside a poster board upon which he had just written, "65% Pay Less."

"If there's one thing I want you to remember," Warner said to a crowd who had gathered to hear his pitch, "it's that at the end of this plan, 65 percent of Virginians will pay less."

I've never seen a number spell a word, but 65 certainly spells "defeat."

Proponents of Alabama's tax increase also relied heavily on the notion of further shifting the cost of government from the many to the few. They repeated a strikingly similar phrase: "70 percent of Alabamians will pay less." The political experts were left scratching their heads when nearly that many voted against the plan. The reason is clear: the phrase "tax increase" isn't some variable expression open to interpretation. The average worker knows that when you take five thousand dollars from a rich man, you take five dollars from the poor man he employs. So despite the cleverness of political advertising, it's impossible to convince Americans they'll pay less when a tax increase is described by the word "billion." Besides, they'll call you a liar and your authority will plummet.

The Democrat governor then told the crowd about several scenarios where most taxpayers would pay such-and-such less and get this-or-that in return. Warner is gambling that most Virginians will gladly shrug their tax burden onto the "rich," and thus demand his plan's approval from their GOP-dominated legislature. (Alabama's increase failed a statewide vote, an arguably easier path than asking a group of conservative lawmakers for final approval)

Yet those poised to pay less under the Alabama plan -- Warner's golden 65 percent -- were the same people who voted it down. The experts were further perplexed, but the reason remains clear: a poor man can plainly calculate what five bucks less every payday means to his life. The rich, and even the middle class, often cannot. They've got a bit of a cushion. What's five bucks, right? Plenty on the other side of the tracks, but few political experts know anything about that.

Like Warner, I've paid taxes in Northern Virginia, but also in Washington, Alabama and a few other places I'd rather forget, and can testify that increasing taxes doesn't increase a community's quality of life, on either side of the tracks. Taxes actually have very little to do with measuring a community, other than providing numbers to diagram against the numbers of some other place.

Virginia is doing rather well, and siphoning capital from its economy would do nothing but harm. It's the quality of people, not government, and certainly not how much government takes from the people, that determines a community's quality of life and its overall success. And in those respects, Gov. Warner, Alabama and Mississippi are leading the nation.

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About the Author

J. Pepper Bryars was a press secretary and speechwriter for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley during his terms in Congress and early in his administration. He is currently living abroad.