January 6, 2012

Dave Marsden, a Democrat, is a member of the Virginia Senate.

On Wednesday, all 40 senators and 100 members of the House of Delegates will take the following oath of office to begin the 2012 session of the Virginia General Assembly: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me as senator [or delegate], according to the best of my ability (so help me God).”

This is a meaningful moment in the exercise of democracy, but our oath is diminished because 29 of our legislators have taken a written pledge to the group Americans for Tax Reform. All of us in elected office make campaign promises, often in writing, but these are promises to constituents — not written pledges, that never expire, to a national special interest.

The Americans for Tax Reform pledge affirms that the signee will “oppose and vote against” all tax increases. How can you take your oath of office in the General Assembly knowing that you have a prior allegiance to a special interest that dictates how you will perform your duties?

The list of our duties as legislators is short. We create a budget based on revenue generated through taxes and fees. We vote on additions and changes to our laws. We confirm judges and gubernatorial appointees and pass resolutions honoring citizens and organizations. When legislators take a pledge never to raise taxes, they are declaring that there is part of their jobs that they cannot even consider carrying out. How can this be “impartially discharging all the duties” incumbent upon them?

Let me be clear. I dislike taxes, and it is not my business to tell another legislator how to vote or to represent his or her constituents. However, signing a pledge never to raise taxes puts our commonwealth in an untenable position, and that is my business. Many state taxes and fees are not indexed for inflation, and each year our commonwealth has declining capacity to provide basic services. (Think transportation as inflation eats away at the value of the gas tax, frozen at 17.5 cents a gallon since 1986.) Because of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, we cannot even effectively debate a tax issue; even if pledge-takers were convinced that a tax increase is necessary, they are unable to compromise. Their allegiance lies elsewhere than the needs of their constituents.

When voters send us to Richmond, one of their fundamental expectations is that we will compromise to meet the needs of the commonwealth. But this pledge has made compromise impossible. Jim Dillard, my predecessor in the House of Delegates (where I served prior to being elected to the Senate in 2010), told me he was once approached by a colleague to introduce a revenue bill for his county. When Jim asked him why he didn’t do it himself, his colleague replied: “I can’t, I signed the no-tax pledge.”

It is time for legislators to repudiate this pledge and all others like it and get back to representing the people of Virginia. It may be difficult to get elected in some districts without signing this pledge. But it is impossible to govern once you have.

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