VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL Ken Cuccinelli II, the presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee, is the state’s most prominent elected official to oppose the landmark transportation bill enacted by the General Assembly this year. Because of the bill’s importance — it would raise well over $1 billion annually for new roads and rails — and because it has the backing of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a fellow Republican, Mr. Cuccinelli’s stance has made waves.
In fact, it is consistent with his opposition to every significant, politically viable effort to rescue the state’s transportation fund for more than a decade.
Under the banner of fiscal conservatism, Mr. Cuccinelli for years pretended that money could be painlessly extracted from other parts of the budget and shifted to transportation. One example of his magical thinking: While he was a state senator representing Northern Virginia, he attacked Democratic efforts to raise taxes for roads, rails and bridges in 2008. Writing in a newsletter, he instead proposed transferring $600 million of existing state spending to transportation. “No programs would need to be cut because the growth in the general fund (where sales taxes go) would be more than $600 million in the next budget,” he confidently predicted.
Not quite. A year after Mr. Cuccinelli offered his assurance, Virginia’s tax-supported general fund budget, wracked by recession, shrank by about 9 percent, or $1.4 billion. It didn’t recover the next year, or the year after, even though federal stimulus spending spared schools, public safety and other programs from severe cuts. In fact, general-fund spending has only now crept back to its 2007 level.
It was easier for Mr. Cuccinelli to tell voters that roads could be maintained and improved with no sacrifice from taxpayers — even though Virginia had raised no new sustainable revenue for transportation in a quarter century. For Mr. Cuccinelli, the political alternative — read: the truth — was unacceptable, for it would have meant explaining that cannibalizing the budget on behalf of transportation requires slashing spending for public schools, police, health and other core services.
More forthright Republicans, including Mr. McDonnell, have faced this reality. Having seen the buying power of the state’s per gallon gas tax, unchanged since 1986, dwindle by more than half, they pushed through a major tax increase with bipartisan support. The effect will be to replenish the depleted transportation fund, jump-start new projects and safeguard the state’s prosperity.
Mr. Cuccinelli attacked the bill, calling it a burden on taxpayers. In fact, the cost of building and maintaining roads long ago outstripped what Virginians have been paying for them. He said the state has done little belt-tightening to justify such a tax hike. In fact, through audits and cuts, the McDonnell administration has found more than $1 billion in savings over three years in office.
This week the Cuccinelli campaign announced that he would no longer sign pledges to oppose new taxes. That’s a welcome shift. But Virginians will remember that Mr. Cuccinelli fought new revenue for transportation when it was on the ballot in 2002. He opposed a major transportation package (after first voting for it) in 2007. He attacked former governor Timothy M. Kaine’s repeated efforts to craft a transportation funding deal. He has opposed Metro’s Silver Line extension to Dulles airport. And this year, after Mr. McDonnell proposed his own plan, Mr. Cuccinelli backed a competing proposal that would have yielded virtually no new tax revenue.
Mr Cuccinelli likes to tell people that whatever they think of his views, he’s a straight shooter. The reality is that for years he has been peddling the fantasy that roads can be built for free.