Fairfax hungry for more revenue

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Would you gladly pay more for a cheeseburger today if it keeps your local librarian working tomorrow?

Several members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors think so. So do supervisors in neighboring Loudoun County, who hope the General Assembly will allow them to impose a meals tax, too.

Despite the recession, a growing number of Northern Virginia officials say they think people would be willing to pay more when dining out to avoid further cuts in budgets for schools and local government.

Facing nearly a half-billion dollars in red ink, some Fairfax officials go even further. They say now is the time to raise user fees or impose new ones, such as charging high school students who play team sports. Others want to reinstate a $25-a-year car tax that was repealed three years ago.

Of course, the politicians acknowledge that any new tax would be risky. With the economy flirting with Great Depression-size disaster for two years, some governments big and small have embraced the conventional wisdom that now is not the time to be raising taxes.

But more than 30 states -- some run by Democrats, some by Republicans and all of them facing whopping holes in their budgets -- have done just that, according to groups that follow taxation trends.

This week, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) took a step closer to joining them when he said that he would consider raising taxes to balance the state's books after learning that its projected budget hole had widened by an additional $2.9 billion in this and the next two fiscal years.

"History says you absolutely do raise taxes in a recession," said Jon Shure, deputy director of the state fiscal project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Many state taxes that exist today first appeared during the Great Depression, Shure said. Mississippi, for instance, imposed its first state sales tax to pay for jobless benefits and other welfare programs.

"Budget cuts hurt people, too," Shure said. "You simply can't do this on spending cuts alone."

Some governmental watchdogs, however, say the idea of taxing meals, or anything, in the middle of a recession turns their stomachs.

"States that follow that advice have people leaving them," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, referring in particular to New York and California. "And before they leave, they send their money away and their children away."

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