Taxes are so toxic an issue in cash-hungry Virginia that the only way a politician can talk about them is by promising not to talk about them.
"Not now, not in the future, not ever," was how the leading Republican contender for governor in 2005 described even the possibility of tax increases.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who has a near-lock on the Republican gubernatorial nomination, was talking to party leaders at their annual winter retreat, an event that used to be a lively and serious strategy session when Republicans were the minority.
Now that Republicans run things in Richmond, it's a weekend wallow in self-congratulation.
"The state of the Republican Party of Virginia is excellent," Kilgore said. "There has never been a better time to be a Republican."
In that vein, it wasn't much of a stretch for Kilgore to predict that U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) will one day be the ninth U.S. president from Virginia -- although the other eight were actually born here. Allen's successor as governor, James S. Gilmore III, led Republicans to a sweep of all three statewide offices in 1997 because "one of his central messages was our citizens give enough of their money to the government," Kilgore said.
"There are those who will always try to take more of your money. Governor Gilmore recognized that that is wrong," Kilgore said. "The voters of Virginia spoke loudly and clearly on this issue in November."
Many of the voters who killed the transportation tax proposals in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads were indeed repulsed by the idea of paying more for the uncertain promise of traffic relief, but what happened Nov. 5 is a lot more complex than the anti-tax fervor that Republicans think is sweeping the state.
Politicians interpret election results through their own peculiar lenses, and in this case some conservatives see a blanket rejection of all new taxes well into the future.
"I see that there are Democrats out there talking about actually raising our taxes on tobacco and other things," Kilgore said. "They just don't get it, do they? It never ceases to amaze me what lengths others may go to take your money.
"Not now, not in the future, not ever will we as a party stand for tax increases," Kilgore said. "We think people should keep more of what they earn."
Well, of course, Virginians should hang on to their hard-earned money, but what would the late Democrat-turned-Republican Mills E. Godwin Jr. have said about his tenure as a governor who imposed broad-based taxes? Why did U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, several members of Congress and local legislators -- Republicans all -- rush to Gov. Mark R. Warner's side to help the Democrat get the tax proposals passed?
Why are a few Republicans -- not just Democrats -- pushing hard right now in the aftermath of Nov. 5 for tax increases to prop up education and other basics?
The problem in Virginia is that the conversation about taxes -- or, more precisely, the hierarchy of values in public spending -- is over before it even starts.
In closing the remaining $1 billion gap in an overall $6 billion budget shortfall, Warner has tried gamely to prod voters into a serious conversation about their priorities in state services, a discussion that has bogged down into partisan sniping over which Department of Motor Vehicles office he shuttered.
"We still need to go to the people of Virginia and say, 'What do you want from state government?' " Warner told a statewide audience of newspaper executives Tuesday. "It's simply too important to leave to the elected officials!"
Into this climate -- where public officials feel snakebit about talking taxes, and the public is telling politicians to go away until they show they responsibly spend what they already have -- comes Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who on Monday proposed changes in state law to force Virginia to fully fund its standards for quality education.
Kaine's presentation was incomplete. For instance, he offered no details of his companion bill requiring yearly evaluations of public school teachers. And he sidestepped the obvious question about raising taxes to fund the $600 million in annual school needs the state simply ignores, year after year.
But at least Kaine, a gubernatorial contender, was trying to keep the conversation lively by indirectly confronting Republicans who are rigid about new taxes, including Kilgore, a possible opponent in '05.
"If there's one thing that's discouraging thus far in a year in office, it's been that we don't have that first discussion," Kaine said of increased education funding. "I'm saying this should be the bull's-eye. . . . Until you pick it as the bull's-eye, you don't make it happen."