Tuesday, June 23, 2009

GOP Howl on Transportation: Taxing and Spent

Lawyers have a saying about the proper way to mount an effective argument at trial.

If the facts are against you, the saying goes, you pound on the law. If the law is against you, you pound on the facts. And if the law and the facts are against you, you pound on the table.

Yesterday, trying to defend Virginia Republicans against charges of inaction on the issue of transportation, William Howell, the Speaker of The House of Delegates, pounded on the table.

By way of background, last week Gov. Kaine published an article in the WaPo discussing the GOP obstruction on transportation funding in the House of Delegates. Sunday, Speaker Howell responded with a political rant entitled, “Virginia Republicans Kept Their Promises on Transportation.”

Teeing up his attack on the Governor, Speaker Howell begins by falsely accusing Kaine of “[attempting to tag] Republicans in the House of Delegates with sole responsibility for every failing of Virginia’s transportation system.” According to Howell, “In [Kaine’s] view, credit for all progress on transportation belongs to his administration and the federal government under President Obama.” Gov. Kaine, according to Howell, is a “partisan hard-liner.”

Hilariously, Howell then proceeds to claim, on behalf of Republicans, credit for all progress on transportation in the Commonwealth, and to attack Kaine and Democrats in the House for opposing the GOP because their proposals did not include tax increases, as if tax increases were an end in themselves.

To be fair, Kaine did lay some blame for the state’s transportation woes at the feet of the GOP, specifically, the decision “that we should not invest more state dollars in transportation.” He also asserts Republican legislators “rebuffed” his “efforts to get more money for statewide or regional needs.”

These, however, are not so much partisan attacks as they are simply statements of fact with which I suspect, were he not so intent in working himself up into an angry lather, Speaker Howell would agree. Indeed, Howell crows about the efforts to block the gasoline tax increase Kaine proposed during the recent special session of the General Assembly, so what exactly is the beef he has with Kaine saying exactly the same thing, albeit from a different point of view?

But, hey, why should the GOP let reality intrude at this point? In defending Republican performance against Kaine’s imagined attack, Howell asserts that House Republicans were the sole driving force behind such initiatives as public-private partnerships for pursuing transportation projects and land use legislation.

Hmmm. I wonder what Gov. Kaine had to say about these initiatives? Did he take “sole responsibility” for them, as Howell claimed?

Here is what Gov. Kaine wrote about public-private partnership and land use legislation: “These changes have been important and generally bipartisan in nature.”

Uh, okay. Perhaps Speaker Howell missed that sentence when he read the article.

More seriously, to understand Speaker Howell’s table pounding requires some understanding of the dynamics of the transportation debate, and the larger problem facing the GOP as it seeks a return to political relevance.

Whatever critiques may fairly be leveled against Gov. Kaine for his failure to fix the Commonwealth’s transportation issues (and there are some), and whatever good policies the House GOP may have supported from time to time (and there are some), the central fact is that the Republicans in the House of Delegates have blocked efforts to address the core transportation problem in the Commonwealth: the lack of new funding for desperately needed new transportation infrastructure, mainly in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

For the last several sessions, the GOP has supported various budgeting tricks that move non-existing dollars from one place in the budget to transportation, measures that relied on projected surpluses that never materialized, or measures that rely upon speculative revenue to be generated, if ever, years in the future, such as future revenue from off-shore drilling. But these are measures designed to give the illusion of providing new funding while doing nothing of the kind. Whatever the relative merits of off-shore drilling, given the controversy over it, is staking transportation funding on revenue derived from it a serious and responsible proposal, or is it political theater?

Needless to say, the Righty Blogosphere in Virginia, found Howell’s argument convincing and inspiring. Gov. Kaine’s, uh, not so much. “Bill Howell Kicks Some Ass,” gushed Too Conservative. The generally more sober Tertium Quids was less sanguine about Howell and the GOP, but it labeled Kaine’s mostly factual article “strange.”

In fact, Howell’s aggressive broadside was a signal that Bob McDonnell and the GOP will default to its stale and discredited tactic of anti-tax demagoguery to obstruct any effort to deliver new funding for transportation. No matter how minimal or necessary such funding might be, it will undoubtedly be characterized as “the biggest tax increase in the history of the world since forever.”™ Indeed, that counts for Howell’s, if misplaced, denunciation of Kaine’s supposed partisanship on the issue. The GOP’s anti-tax position is not intended as a rational argument over policy; it only works as a rallying cause against the evil of government.

Howell's rant also presages the upcoming election.

Consider this from the blog Mason Conservative:
So yes, please o' please Deeds and Dems, run on who's going to cut taxes and who's not. I want to talk more about your plan to raise the gas tax during on the worst recessions in a long long time. I want to talk about Deeds supporting raising vehicle registration fees I want to talk about Deeds supporting fuel tax in Northern Virginia, I want to talk about Deeds voting for the 2004 tax increase while Messrs. McDonnell, Bolling, and Cuccinelli all voted "NO." Over and over again, "centrist" "conservative" Rural Courthouse Senator Creigh Deeds has voted YES, YES, YES for tax increase.

So please, lets make who's more likely to raise taxes on the middle class be it directly, or through gas, or through fees a legitimate issue. Because on the back benches in the Senate, Deeds sat back and voted yes over and over on this.

I certainly don’t speak for either the Deeds campaign or Democrats generally, but that debate will spell Democratic victory in November. Sure, there is an element of the electorate virulently anti-tax to which this argument will appeal. But this election is not about their votes, which are not going to Sen. Deeds anyway.

The problem is that voters will not necessarily frame the question like Mason Conservative does. The salient issue will not be "who's going to cut taxes and who's not." The issues voters will more likely be concerned with are who has a positive agenda for moving the state forward? Who has pragmatic ideas for solving the transportation problems of the state? If my taxes will go up, what will they be used for? Who will level with me about all the facts so I can make an informed decision?

And so forth...

This election is about he votes of Virginia’s moderates, and thanks in part to the failed administrations of Gov. Jim Gilmore and, more recently, President George W. Bush, these voters have wised up to the tired and mindless anti-tax rhetoric anti-tax rhetoric of the modern GOP. People have come to understand that the cause of low taxes for their own sake, disconnected from a discussion of the policies and programs such taxes are meant to finance, is not a recipe for good governance.

Does the Mason Conservative really want to talk about the 2004 tax increase? Is there some way to gauge how voters feel about that. If only we could have a proxy election on the issue, like Mark Warner running against Jim Gilmore for statewide office, perhaps we'd get some insight into that question? Ah, well, it’ll never happen – I guess we’ll just have to speculate about what voters think.

More recently, given the severity of Virginia’s transportation problem, does Mason Conservative really want to discuss the gas tax? Consider the proposed increase beat back by Republicans in the House of Delegates during the special session.

The proposed increase was a one cent per gallon per year over the next six years.

To put that into some context, if the average person drives 12,000 miles per year, and assuming an average of 25 MPG, in translates into an additional $5 per year. That would be a total of $30 over the entire six year period.

Of course, some will be taxed more, some less, depending on a variety of factors, but that is the average.

I’m confident, presented with all the facts, voters will, as a general matter, collectively come to common sense conclusions. This year, Creigh Deeds and the Democrats will be having a serious and honest discussion with voters about setting the Commonwealth on a path of sustained prosperity and economic justice and opportunity for all, a path that begins with fixing our transportation problems.

William Howell, Bob McDonnell and Mason Conservative meanwhile, signal that they will just be pounding the table.

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