Time for Some Truth-Telling on Va. Taxes

Thursday, August 20, 2009

VIRGINIA HAS not raised statewide taxes for transportation since Ronald Reagan was president, leaving it with one of the nation's lowest gas taxes and a rapidly deteriorating road network. Twice in the past three years, Republicans in the General Assembly have balked at increasing rates for road and transit improvements. In keeping with that stance, Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate in this year's gubernatorial campaign, has ruled out future tax increases for transportation.

So it was no great surprise last week when Virginia Republicans howled with delight after state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor, answered "yes" when asked whether he would sign a bill, if one were presented to him, that raised taxes to pay for new roads. Treating Mr. Deeds's statement as akin to a felony confession, officials for the party and for the McDonnell campaign trumpeted it in an instantly produced video. No doubt Republicans were further heartened by a Post poll, published Sunday, that found 56 percent of respondents in Virginia similarly opposed to higher taxes for funding road and transit projects.

It's no surprise that Virginians, pinched by the recession, would recoil at the prospect of higher tax bills. But once you set aside issues that governors and state lawmakers can affect only marginally -- such as restoring jobs lost in the downturn or fixing the health-care system -- transportation and education rightly remain at or near the top of the agenda for most state voters. So the critical test for gubernatorial candidates is whether they are willing to tell a plain truth: that if Virginians want first-rate education and a better transportation system, they will have to pay for it.

So far, neither candidate has passed that test with flying colors. Mr. McDonnell has pushed a plan which, while commendably detailed, would divert funds from competing state priorities, including education and public safety, to pay for transportation improvements. Mr. Deeds, insofar as his published platform is concerned, has barely bothered to float a transportation program. Now, by stating that he'd sign a bill containing higher taxes for roads, he has at least tipped his hand.

We can't affirm that embracing higher taxes is a winning electoral strategy in Virginia. But we can say with confidence that any candidate who pledges to veto a transportation bill that includes higher taxes is, as a matter of budgetary and political fact, consigning Virginia to a future of roads even more clogged than they are now. That is the route Mr. McDonnell has chosen. Mr. Deeds, for his part, offers at least a hope that reason will prevail.

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