SENIOR REPUBLICAN lawmakers and some Democratic go-alongs in Virginia are singing the praises of "tax reform" almost as if they meant truly revamping the state's unfair tax structure. But in the legislature's distorted lexicon, tax restructuring does not mean eliminating Virginia's many tax breaks for the wealthy and big business, not to mention Big Tobacco. Instead, leaders have in mind yet another break for the upper brackets; while Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) continues dutifully to slice state spending to narrow the revenue gap in Richmond, legislators are pushing to repeal the estate tax.
Republicans are griping about cuts in state services. And no wonder: As in many states, revenue is not keeping up with forecasts. With several rounds of budget-cutting already completed, the coming legislative session must find an additional $1 billion or more in cuts to balance a $50 billion, two-year budget. Cities and counties are suffering, as will schools, mental health services and universities. Yet even as they complain about the need to cut, the legislators are promoting the repeal of a tax that generates about $120 million annually for the state's treasury. Don't worry, they say: Repeal wouldn't aggravate the immediate financial troubles anyway; it would apply to the estates of people who die after Jan. 1, 2004, when the lawmakers like to believe the economy will be rebounding. And besides, other states with budget shortfalls worse than Virginia's are repealing their estate taxes too.
Mr. Warner rightly opposes the idea, though he stopped short of saying he would veto a repeal -- a move he should not rule out. As the governor said last week after a ceremony honoring two dozen of the state's best teachers and principals, "it's politically popular to be opposed to any tax, but at some point we've got a responsibility to the people to say there are ramifications. You can't keep cutting your revenues and at the same time continue to say that you're going to be able to have world-class colleges and universities, or that you're going to be able to celebrate the kind of successes that we just celebrated with these teachers."
The debate in Richmond ought to be about what the state seriously expects from its governments at all levels. It should begin with the recognition that Virginia has not provided the resources necessary to meet needs in education, transportation, health care and other areas. Many Virginians are dissatisfied with crowded classrooms and classroom trailers, with rising college tuition and stifling traffic jams. When Republicans respond by proposing to cut estate taxes for the wealthiest, voters should remember: There's a connection.