Would you buy a car under the same terms and conditions you are being asked to approve a referendum taxing yourselves?
by Del. Robert G. Marshall -R
Your paper wants citizens to buy into $11 billion worth of transportation projects by voting for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia referenda this fall. But I doubt your readers would buy a car under similar terms and conditions.
If a car salesman refused to give you a price for a vehicle or told you the sticker price was wrong, showed you one car but acknowledged you might get another or none at all, refused to let you know if you could get a legal loan, or silent when you asked what mileage it would get, or if it would get you to work on time, or told you to pay him anyway, you would have serious doubts.
And yet, voters are offered similar terms on the transportation referenda this fall.
Neither the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission nor the recently created Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has ever built so much as a $1,500 residential driveway, but voters are being asked to give them responsibility for contracting and overseeing $11 billion for massive multiyear projects!
The Secretary of Finance has acknowledged that "the sales tax revenue growth rates on Hampton Roads (and presumably Northern Virginia) really shouldn't matter since neither the 4% or the 5% [growth projection] was going to be correct. Ditto for the project costs and whether they end up being $6 billion or $ 8 billion." That's a $2 billion difference and apparently doesn't matter!
Giving incorrect growth rates for future revenue means that the number of projects can be altered in a flash. Thus, how many of the projects listed on the two referenda will actually be built? And how many are listed just to get votes?
The Secretary of Transportation was unable to give me project costs for any of the 24 projects listed on the Northern Virginia referendum. Virginia's new Commissioner of Transportation told me that he does not have a currently reliable means of estimating projects costs, and he won't have one until after the referendum.
For Hampton Roads, the legislation only mentions "the estimated amount of bonds to be issued for each project." No one has to adhere to any cost ceiling. Given recent VDOT cost overruns, there may be enough money to build the third crossing. There are no dates for starting or finishing projects. And, Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board has nothing to say about $11 billion in transportation spending.
During debate, the General Assembly rejected efforts to require that referendum roads would not fall below traffic paralysis of a "rush hour" creeping parking lot; to allow voters in individual jurisdictions to reject the tax; to prohibit the assembly from reducing the amount of per cent transportation funds in the state budget from that received in the previous 12 months; to prohibit the building of a project that does not conform to a county or city's comprehensive plan; and to expressly inform voters of the rate of increase of the sales tax.
Three times on 3 separate bills, debate on these referenda was cut off, so opponents were unable to fully explain problems. No one is elected to these transportation authorities, yet they can obligate and spend billions of dollars, every dime of which could legally be spent without public scrutiny through the Freedom Of Information Act.
Because the statute says, "The taxes imposed . . . shall not apply to food purchased for human consumption," one would think the two referenda do not tax food. But, food and drink sold in vending machines will be taxed.
This point is very telling. It means that you cannot trust the plain words of the statue, and not just in this instance.
This statute was drawn in haste to avoid "problems" like the Virginia Constitution, which protects us from the off-the-books, Enron-type accounting and financing now plaguing corporate America. Past Attorneys General have given conflicting advice if this is even legal. And a bond rating agency said they may well consider this local debt. Will that reduce local ability to borrow for schools, parks, recreation centers, fire houses and senior centers?
Gov. Mark Warner has refused to answer whether he will give me or any other elected officials any documents showing he has a legal basis for this novel financing scheme. Why? If he has such documents, he should rush to give them to every newspaper in Virginia.
Former Gov. Baliles and the General Assembly told us in 1987 that the increased billions in state taxes we have spent would get us out of our traffic woes. It hasn't, in part because there has been no requirement to tie transportation funds to smart land use planning. Mass transit systems still have quarter-acre and third-acre lots surrounding most stations. Until high density development is allow near rail stops, we will all continue to sit in traffic, and pay more taxes to do so if the two referenda pass.
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, a Republican, represents parts of Loudoun and Prince William Counties in the State House of Delegates. He voted in the Assembly against the bill allowing the referenda.