Correction to This Article
In this column a paragraph referring to Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee for governor, was omitted in some editions because of a production error. The missing paragraph and its lead-in should have read: "The idea isn't as wild or self-defeating as it sounds, for three reasons: It's what he's thinking. Urging a tax increase would just mean that Deeds admits to the voters before the election what he's planning to do anyway if he wins."

It's Time for Deeds to Propose a Tax Increase

Last week's Tysons Corner rally for Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds was attended by President Obama, who took a helicopter rather than fight traffic.
Last week's Tysons Corner rally for Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds was attended by President Obama, who took a helicopter rather than fight traffic. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 9, 2009

No matter how hard they try to get excited about campaigning for state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), Virginia Democrats can't help viewing the race for governor as a bit of a snooze. It's bound to feel like an anticlimax a year after winning the state's presidential contest for the first time since 1964 and helping elect the nation's first African American president.

So, here's a suggestion for Deeds and the Democrats to enliven the race. Propose to raise taxes to fix the roads. Yes, you read that correctly.

Raise taxes.

There's no doubt that the state needs more money to maintain, repair and upgrade streets and highways. And although Republicans may disagree, the public doesn't seem to support getting the money by penalizing schools, police or social programs.

The only solution, then, is to find what's euphemistically called "new sources of revenue."

"You can call it something else," but "you're going to have to acknowledge that you're going to have to raise some money" for transportation, said Rep. Robert C. Scott, who represents Virginia's 3rd District, including Newport News.

The idea isn't as wild or self-defeating as it sounds, for three reasons:

It's what he's thinking. Urging a tax increase would just mean that Deeds admits to the voters before the election what he's planning to do anyway if he wins.

Consider: Deeds says transportation would be his top priority in his first year in office, but he won't spell out where he'd find the money. He only says definitively that he won't divert funds targeted for education, as envisioned by his Republican opponent, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell.

However, Deeds hints clearly that taxes would rise. That's because he says his model would be that of the last governor who succeeded in finding extra money for transportation, Gerard L. Baliles, a Democrat elected in 1985. Like Deeds, Baliles didn't discuss details of his roads plan during the campaign. After winning, he appointed a bipartisan panel to study the issue and then followed its recommendations. The result: higher gasoline and sales taxes.

Nobody's happy with the status quo. Virginia politicians have been wary of increasing taxes since the failure of a 2002 ballot measure proposing to raise taxes and fees for transportation. Since then, though, no other solution has been found, and the problem has grown more critical.

Virginia's spending on transportation has dropped by a third since 2007, to less than $1 billion a year. State officials say funding should double or triple to provide for urgent paving, replacing deficient bridges and other tasks.

A measure of the distress was the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Tysons Corner just before a Deeds rally Thursday where President Obama was the headliner. Fear that his motorcade would worsen the gridlock led Obama to take his helicopter, Marine Corps One, from the White House to McLean.

At the event, rank-and-file Democrats called on Deeds to provide specifics about his roads plan. Although they acknowledged that it was risky, they said it would show he is serious about the issue and reinforce his reputation for authenticity.

"That would be dangerous but at the same time smart," said Drew Kleibrink, 51, of Falls Church.

Frank Blechman, 62, of Fairfax Station predicted that the candidate would "fill in some blanks" on transportation before Election Day. "If we get to October and he's still saying he has a secret plan in his pocket, those of us old enough to remember [Richard] Nixon are wary of that," Blechman added with a grin, referring to the presidential campaign in 1968, when Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War.

The public sector needs to expand. Voters put Democrats in office nationally and in the Washington region (except for Richmond's GOP-led House of Delegates) expecting that they would use government to address common problems. Rebuilding infrastructure is a top priority. The Red Line crash in June, and problems battling the fire at the Peggy Cooper Cafritz house July 31 because of a 75-year-old water main, highlighted some deficiencies in the region."

There are plenty of caveats. The government can't get a blank check, and authorities must keep battling waste and excess. Any tax increase in Virginia must be implemented so as to preserve, as much as possible, its reputation as a state friendly to business. That could mean spreading the burden around among business and labor, and among different parts of the state. It could mean tying a tax increase to a reduction in regulation or red tape. All money raised should be spent promptly to minimize the drain on the economy during hard times.

Nevertheless, protecting the business climate can't mean that taxes never rise. Virginia's roads clearly require extra revenue, and Deeds should speak straight to the voters about how he would raise the money if elected.

'Every' Day, Mr. President?

Obama opened his remarks at the Tysons rally by praising Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) as "a guy who spends every single day thinking about your future, thinking about your children's future and the future of this commonwealth."

Kaine was away from Richmond for half the days in June for work in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Since then, he has reported spending at least four days away on DNC trips.

E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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