Mr. Deeds's Dilemma
It's political suicide to urge higher taxes, and folly not to.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE LAST gubernatorial candidate in Virginia to offer a responsible, realistic, adequate funding plan to fix the state's crumbling roadways was H. Russell Potts Jr., an uncommonly straight-talking, curmudgeonly state senator, formerly a Republican, who ran as an independent in 2005. He proposed $2 billion annually in fresh transportation revenue, mostly from new taxes and tolls. His honesty, both about the dimensions of the state's transportation mess and the means necessary to fix it, netted him a grand total of 2.2 percent of the vote.

Mr. Potts's ill-fated campaign was not exactly an object lesson to Virginia politicians -- it was more like a reminder, if one were needed, of the perils of leveling with voters about the tens of billions of dollars in new money needed for transportation. Although Virginia has had a string of successful governors, none in recent memory ran on a platform that included higher taxes. That includes two Democrats who, once in office, were successful in pushing through badly needed tax increases -- Gerald L. Baliles, in 1986, and Mark R. Warner, in 2004 -- and another one, incumbent Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, whose efforts to do the same have been undone by Republicans.

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the current Democratic candidate for governor, is trying to repeat the Baliles-Warner-Kaine trick of ducking and dodging the tax question as a candidate while not-so-secretly having every intention of seeking new revenue (read: taxes) as governor. Unfortunately, he lacks the political agility of his Democratic predecessors.

We say "unfortunately" because unlike his Republican opponent, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, Mr. Deeds clearly understands that only new taxes will genuinely improve the sorry state of Virginia's roads and highways. He has signaled this both by voting for higher taxes in the legislature and by saying that he will sign any bill that reaches his desk that includes new tax revenue for transportation. Despite that, or because of it, he has made a major strategic blunder in committing no real transportation plan to paper. That has left Mr. Deeds's campaign in the worst of all positions -- having to defend itself simultaneously for having no plan at all and for having a politically unpalatable one.

Mr. Deeds's dilemma was crystallized in the gubernatorial debate Thursday when Mr. McDonnell held up a blank sheet of paper to illustrate the absence of a Deeds transportation plan. He then proceeded to attack Mr. Deeds for what is, in fact, his unstated plan: raising taxes to pay for roads. No wonder the Democrat -- who said in the debate that he would not raise taxes, only to admit later to journalists that he would, but only for transportation -- was left stammering a post-debate explanation, a video of which was promptly posted on YouTube by Republicans.

It's no surprise that voters in a recession, or at any other time, recoil at the idea of higher taxes. We checked the clippings: In 1986, amid a healthy economy, Northern Virginians, even then beset by traffic jams and lengthening commutes, nonetheless complained bitterly about the Baliles transportation plan, which as passed would raise $4.6 billion over the next 10 years to improve roads. Without those funds, Virginians would today be facing even longer commutes than they now do.

Over the next 20 years, Virginia is facing a shortfall of at least $100 billion in transportation funding -- in other words, a full-blown crisis. The state, and specifically Northern Virginia, is virtually out of money to pay for building and improving roads; what little money left in the transportation budget is being sponged up by the increasingly costly effort simply to maintain the existing network. In the face of that, Mr. McDonnell proposes a highly detailed but unworkable program that -- without admitting it -- relies mainly on raiding other areas of the budget such as education and public safety to pay for new roads.

We don't argue that an explicit campaign pledge to raise taxes for transportation is smart politics -- just ask Mr. Potts. But by ruling out any new taxes while pretending he can painlessly massage away the problem, Mr. McDonnell is being dishonest with Virginians. And by trying to fudge the issue, Mr. Deeds has only tangled himself in knots. Maybe the only hope is that a few more years of steadily deteriorating road conditions will prompt voters to petition their elected officials for the only sensible solution: new revenue. Until then, don't hope for quicker commutes any time soon.

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