So you thought Virginia's lawmakers were done talking about taxes?
Not so fast.
With memories still fresh from their bruising debate last winter, some House delegates last week convened a special committee to discuss how to close the loopholes that riddle the state's tax code.
The mission of the committee, led by Del. Thelma Drake (R-Norfolk), is broad: to "examine the policy reasons for such tax preferences, make recommendations regarding which, if any, preferences should be repealed or amended, and develop criteria for granting any such future tax preferences."
In a nutshell, to rip apart decades of the most special of special interest legislation, which grants tax breaks to hundreds of powerful industries, companies and nonprofit groups.
The idea's not new. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) offered to get rid of $600 million in tax breaks for big companies during the past session as an alternative to the tax increases sought by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and Republicans in the Senate. Most of that plan went nowhere fast, in part because of intense opposition from -- you guessed it -- the companies that stood to lose the tax breaks.
(Full disclosure: Lawyers for The Washington Post and other media companies were among those who testified against closing the tax breaks for newspapers this year.)
A few lawmakers, notably Del. Allen L. Louderback (R-Page), are pushing to go even further than the House proposed. Louderback wants to tax everything. No more breaks. And in return, he says, overall rates for sales and income could be lowered for everyone. It would be a radical change in the state's tax code.
But there are lots of reasons to believe Drake's group will do nothing at all this year.
At the special committee session, dozens of lobbyists turned out. One after another, they pleaded their case for why their industry's tax break should be retained.
There were lobbyists to represent the certified public accountants, the taxi industry, hospitals and golf course owners. Officials representing the state's ports were there, as were the oil and gas giants and the dry cleaners. The Nature Conservancy defended breaks for people who donate land, and the newspapers and broadcasters once again lobbied for breaks on their products.
These are the same groups (media companies, aside) that donate heavily to campaigns, and there's more than a bit of skepticism out there about whether any lawmakers will bite the hands that feed them.
"You've got a better chance of hitting the Powerball than seeing this legislature strip an exemption for agriculture," offered Steve Haner, the chief lobbyist for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, as he watched the parade of lobbyists address the committee.
And don't forget, we're heading into an election year on the state level; all 100 delegates are up for reelection in November 2005. It's especially unlikely that lawmakers will make any serious attempt to end tax breaks just as they are asking for money from these groups.
Drake signaled her hesitancy at the end of the meeting by saying she hopes the committee finds a methodical way to evaluate the need for future tax breaks. Note the key word there: future. A dismayed Louderback urged the committee to keep its eye on his goal of examining all tax breaks. But none of the other committee members leaped to agree with him.
And finally, there's Drake, who may not even be in the legislature to see her committee's work through.
Drake suddenly finds herself running for Congress after Rep. Edward L. Schrock (R) decided not to seek reelection amid charges that he had solicited gay sex. Drake faces Democrat David B. Ashe, a former Marine, on Nov. 2.
For those following that race, Democrats say they believe they have a decent chance to pick up the 2nd Congressional District seat, which encompasses Norfolk, Hampton and Virginia Beach. But GOP strategists say polls show strong support for Drake, who has been receiving lots of attention from senior Washington pols.
This week, she traveled to Washington for a fundraiser. And she's plastered the district with mailings, including one that suggests an old favorite from the SAT to draw attention to President Bush's apparent lead in Virginia over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
The thrust: Drake is to Bush as Ashe is to Kerry.