Adventures in Warnerland:  PART II

by Steven Sisson
The Valley Blue Dog Democrat

[Columnist Steven Sisson, a conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat, has attended the U.S. Naval School of Photography and Photojournalism. In the past, he has written a monthly column for the Common Ground organization's newspaper about issues dealing with peace, justice and the environment. But Steve's fiscal views and thoughts are slightly "right of center" with his own party philosophy.]

The Gilmore Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

"Oh, you foolish Mark Warner!" he answered himself. "How can you learn lessons in here? Why, there's hardly room for YOU, and no room at all for you in any history books!"

And so he went on, taking first one side and then the other, and making quite a conversation of it all together; but after a few minutes he heard a voice outside, and stopped to listen.

"Mame Reiley! Mame Reiley!" said the voice. "Fetch me my One Virginia PAC money this moment!"

Question the public about Warner ... the first thing that comes to mind is his bank account. He is worth millions.

His private life and political career has been shaped by dollar amounts. His election campaigns bode like an economic-stimulus package for the Third World. Whether a Senate or governor's race, or a well-funded transportation referendum campaign, money has always mattered with Mark's political strategy.

But who will pay the bill for the Gilmore car-tax repeal?

Warner's deep pockets and ability to raise money in Democratic circles has helped bankroll his political career, and now he will make an attempt at his tax-reform legacy. This year, the governor's support assisted with the Renew Virginia's School PAC campaign against anti-tax GOP primary candidates and the One Virginia PAC contributions that targeted General Assembly races.

In the GOP spring primaries, there were rumors of a governor's request that Democrat faithful and teacher-union members vote to assist moderate GOP incumbents against the anti-tax challengers. That's probably when the real campaign to advance the Warner tax plan began, because these tax-friendly Republicans would be needed after Nov. 4.

Amid the 2003 General Assembly campaign, there were more rumors of Warner pandering to tax-soft Republican incumbents while overlooking Democratic candidates in those districts. The One Virginia PAC denied the accusation, but within private circles most political handlers understood the stealth campaign to re-elect the political power brokers who favored tax increases.

Moderate tax-soft Republicans faced stiff competition in 2003 from anti-tax candidates around the Commonwealth. But that Democratic opposition was not considered viable by the Warner administration, and the One Virginia PAC, in an attempt to placate a future tax vote. Without these tax-friendly GOP votes, the Warner tax plan would be doomed for failure in the 2004 session.

Political pundits and this columnist also speculated publicly that Warner and his staff did not assist Democratic candidates in order to preserve his tax-reform legacy.

That strategy worked for him this election cycle. But this is not good medicine for a political party that is on the verge of becoming obsolete, with dwindling numbers and few wins in statewide elections.

Around the state, especially in rural Virginia, a good segment of the Democratic committees are in the same condition. The meetings are sparsely attended with a majority of older membership. They share stories about their latest health crises while complaining about not having any young folks in the party. These are good people, but the party is not recruiting or attracting younger, more conservative voters.

With the exception of Alexandria-Arlington region and the city of Richmond, Democratic Party candidates are considered unelectable in large portions of the state. The party has lost touch with rural Virginians.

Democratic Party issues should not be based on one individual's self-interest or his potential legacy. Future political considerations, like elections to higher office, are selfish motivators in a big political tent, especially in the Commonwealth, where convictions and core issues still matter to most party faithful.

Mr. Warner's fiscal legacy of tax increases and his surrender to Republican tax cuts might gain his national prominence, but Virginia Democrats will ultimately bear the cost.

In the end, the Democratic faithful will pay that bill.

A Mad Hatter Hanger's Tea-Party

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the governor's mansion, and the March Hare Parrish and the Mad Hatter Hanger were having tea at it; a Louderback-Mouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and the talking over its head.

"Very uncomfortable for the Louderback-Mouse," thought Mark Warner; "only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind."

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: "No Taxes! No Taxes!" they cried out when they saw the governor coming. "There's PLENTY of room for taxes!" said Mark Warner indignantly, and he sat down in a large armchair at one end of the table.

"Well then, how about increasing the gas tax," the March Hare Parrish said in an encouraging tone.

This past July, the tax commission planned a private meeting at the governor's mansion. Warner, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and other tax commission members said it was a social gathering - a tea party at the governor's mansion. It was only open to the public after watchdog organizations and news reporters across the state protested about the closed meeting.

The American Civil Liberties Union and General Assembly's Freedom of Information Advisory Council both said the meeting was in violation of the law. Attorney General Jerry Kilgore was "deeply" concerned, as was Speaker of the House William Howell, who called for an open meeting to discuss tax reform.

In fact, almost every Virginia editorial newspaper editor chastised the governor and the Hanger-Del. Harry Parrish, R-Manassas, Tax Commission about the closed meeting.

That's when the tax-commission doors finally opened, but when the governor's mouth clamored shut about tax reform. The public never saw a tax plan throughout the election.

Yes, through the summer, Hanger did utter a proposed increase in the cigarette tax, and Parrish talked about an increase gas tax, and Del. Allen Louderback, R-Luray, announced his service-sales tax plan, but the governor's lips were sealed until after the election.

To his credit, Mr. Warner did manage to keep that promise.

The Hanger-Parrish Commission proved out to be only window dressing. The tax commission never voted on anything - not one recommendation - other than to hold open meetings. That's the only thing the tax commission ever agreed on.

The Hanger-Parrish Commission joins an exclusive club of do-nothing state government, starting with the Morris Commission, and then Del. Bob McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach-Hanger Tax Restructuring Committee, which adjoined last year after making 10 tax-reform recommendations. If the Hanger-Parrish tax commission does have a better plan, why are they waiting until January to debate the proposal?

Maybe the public would have been better off reading tea leaves.

Kate Obenshain Griffin, the GOP Queen of Hearts

"Off with their heads!

"How do you like the new GOP Queen?" said the Chichester Cat in a low voice.
"Not at all," said Mark Warner: "She's so extremely ..."

Just then he noticed that the Queen was close behind him, listening: So he went on, " ... likely to win, that it's hardly worth while finishing the game."

The GOP Queen smiled and passed on.

This past September, Kate Obenshain Griffin was elected as the Virginia Republican Party chair. She is the daughter of the late Richard Obenshain, who was the architect of the modern, conservative wing of the Virginia GOP. Lower taxes and limited government are her heritage and will be her mainstay through the tenure.

Chairman Griffin has already stated that Warner has no mandate to raise taxes on the hard-working men and women of the Commonwealth. She recently added that Warner has officially broken his solemn campaign promise not to raise taxes.

After all, a 1-percent increase in the state sales tax is a tax increase.

The next GOP chairman has laid down the gauntlet, but does she have a solution to the car-tax debt? Or how to pay off the estate tax? Both are Republican tax-cutting initiatives that the Democrat Warner has adopted as his own legacy.

What political party will eventually represent Virginia taxpayers?

Special-interest groups and powerful law firms have long advocated a Virginia tax increase. Big money, and businesses likewise, have pushed for a new era of taxes. These interest groups can control and command with their PAC contributions to General Assembly candidates in both parties.

But no one ever speaks for the average Joe and Jane Taxpayer who pay the bills.

Virginia's tax code is regressive in nature, affecting lower and middle-income families the most. Neither party panders to these voters, other than to promise to cut unpopular taxes. If Virginia has a fiscal crisis, then problem solving a sensible state budget should be the goal of both parties.

Chairman Griffin will need to showcase an effective GOP tax plan before casting any more stones. Anyone can stir the political cooking pot, but serving up a healthy solution to the table takes real leadership.

Trouble is, Kate's royal-card deck is stacked with alternative tax plans from moderate GOP members, like Chichester, Parrish, Hanger and Louderback. In the end, the plethora of new taxes and tax proposals strangely resemble Warner's tax plan.

All the so-called tax reform plans include new taxes.

And that's the problem. It's a finger-pointing game right now.

Later the blame game, and then it's off with their Republican heads.

The Mock Tax Reform Story

"Oh, I know!" exclaimed Mark Warner, who had not attended to this last remark, "it's a tax increase. It doesn't look like one, but it is."

"I quite agree with you," said the moderate Republican leadership; "and the moral of that is ... 'Be what you would seem to be' ... or if you'd like it put more simply, 'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.' "

"I think I should understand that better," Mark Warner said very politely, "if I had it written down: But I can't quite follow it as you say it.'"

In 1989, Valley resident Marshall Coleman campaigned for governor on a promise to change Virginia law requiring any new tax or increase in taxes be approved through state referendums.

A statewide tax-referendum process was played out in Alabama this year, and taxes failed to be increased. In the Virginia political arena, the plausible solution around the elected officials who signed the No Tax Pledge has become tax referendums.

Apparently, we have elected politicians nationwide that are no longer willing to take on their elected responsibility. Referendums are slowly becoming an easy way out for those politicians who do not want the liability of tax increase. The hard work behind sensible government planning and legislation has become a politically incorrect way of doing business.

In Alabama, the tax referendum failed miserably by a 3-to-1 margin. The current attitude of elected officials is to blame the voting public for not providing the funding for essential services. Like everything else in our society, accountability has now become old school for politicians. Re-election, or a potential run for higher office are the new higher goals for politicians, not public service, or the responsibility that comes with that elected office.

Here are some basic facts that may lead to a referendum: The Republican majority in the 2004 General Assembly will not raise taxes. The GOP state chair, Kate Griffin, has stated her opposition to a tax increase.

The votes are simply not there.

And all Warner's money is not going help with public pressure in the Richmond political arena. Thus, forcing a stalemate. Warner will likely play the tax-referendum card once again - but that might be the madness behind the method.

That way the governor is off the hook, again, and he cannot be blamed in future elections for breaking his promise not to raise taxes.

Virginia political analysts have been predicting an Alabama-style tax-referendum strategy for the Commonwealth for months. The Warner tax-increase plan might well need to be placed on the fall ballot in order to pay for his latent campaign promises.

It appears that the losers in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads referendums had a well-funded media campaign complete with polling data and scheduled talk-show appearances. The newest tax war may have been jumpstarted already with the Foundation of Virginia organization. The Foundation for Virginia will probably fund a slick public-relations campaign to increase taxes, which includes direct-mailings and lobbying.

This week, the Warner Administration has provided an income calculator that magically predicts your purchasing power and tax decreases. The governor has already begun to masquerade as the head ringmaster in a three-ringed tax-and-spin circus playing across the Commonwealth. The Foundation for Virginia campaign could end up resembling the same public-relations tax battle that was seen in Alabama, which was conducted like political campaign, complete with all the electioneering paraphernalia.

In the end, tax reform will be reduced to a 15-second sound bite.

Warner has already promised to help raise $2 million for the nonprofit organization. Virginia citizens might have the opportunity to see a few good TV commercials. Maybe the famed 1990s health-care commercial actors Harry and Louise will be hired on. How about the Virginia Lottery's Lady Luck for a guest spot?

Perhaps we might hear a few radio spots and tax jingles as well. And how about bringing back those ever-popular "Virginia is for Tax Lovers" buttons, tee shirts and bumper stickers?

That's entertainment. That's politics.

But is that good government?

See Also: 

Adventures in Warnerland - Part I 
Adventures in Warnerland - Part II 
Adventures in Warnerland - Part III