House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) is fond of saying that when lawmakers raised the sales tax by a half-cent in 1986 to finance transportation construction, they overestimated the public's reaction. There was so little anger evident, Callahan said, they could have -- and, by implication, should have -- raised the tax a whole cent.
"Not only did no one complain," he recalled recently, "I didn't get one acknowledgement that it happened. It was nonexistent."
Callahan did not put his money where his mouth was this year. After supporting a preliminary bill to raise $1 billion by increasing the sales tax a half-cent, he voted no on the crucial, final vote. And yet he now claims credit for spending all the money that others voted to raise.
It's time to think about Callahan's observation anew.
On Wednesday, the higher taxes that Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) championed as necessary to balance the state's long-term books will begin to take effect. The state's sales tax will increase by a half-cent, and the 2.5-cent per-pack tax on cigarettes will go up to 20 cents. Taxes on utility companies will go up, as will fees for recording deeds.
The question is: Will anybody notice?
Taxes are a potent political issue in Richmond. The debate over whether to raise them spawned a historic, lengthy and bitter legislative session that ripped apart the Republican Party and might give rise to a whole new political coalition over the next several years.
During campaigns in Virginia, voters are egged on by candidates who make taxes the litmus test by which they hope their opponents will be judged. The contested state Senate primaries in 2003 were a good example.
"It's about taxes and ethics," Bryan Slater, the campaign manager for Paul Jost, said during a bitter campaign against state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). "It's about who's for keeping taxes low, who's for not raising the tax burden on the citizens of Virginia."
If anti-tax Republicans such as Jost have their fingers on the pulse of the state's voters, there will be an outcry when the taxes rise next week.
We might see letters to the editor as people notice the extra half-cent on their receipts. There could be more chatter in the Metro and at barbershops -- a kind of popular uprising. And, of course, angry voters could choose to oust from office those lawmakers who voted to raise taxes.
"People will notice changes in their bill. They will look at their receipts," said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), one of the most ardent anti-tax lawmakers. "People have already adjusted to the idea that its going to happen, [so] it isn't going to be shock and anger. There's a mental easing-in period. The emotional feelings may have burned off, but the economic impact won't."
It's also possible, maybe even likely, that Callahan's maxim ends up being true this time around, too.
When Republican lawmakers in the House of Delegates scheduled town meetings during the height of the tax debate in the spring, they expected an outpouring of outraged residents demanding that their taxes be kept low.
The anti-tax rallies never materialized. In their place, boosters of the tax increase rallied crowds of people who wanted more state spending on education, colleges, sheriffs and other state-supported programs.
On Wednesday, a $1,000 refrigerator will increase in cost by $5. A pack of cigarettes will cost 17 cents more. The price of recording a deed for a $200,000 house will go up from $300 to $500.
The tax package lawmakers passed this year also includes tax cuts, a point the boosters never fail to mention. But most of those cuts, including a gradual drop in the tax on food and income tax breaks for lower income taxpayers, won't go into effect until next year or even later.
Meanwhile, the public has many things to think about right now besides taxes. War in Iraq. Choosing a president. The traffic in their neighborhoods. Terrorism.
It's a good bet that the increase in Virginia's taxes will come and go with little fanfare.