Referendum defeats mark new
era in Va. politics
the Rebel With A Cause, was chief political strategist for
the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was
credited with leading a "revolution in American
politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking
America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics. He
alone will be responsible for his column, ideas, and opinions.
PAUL GOLDMAN Part 1 of 3
to Hell," the hit song by heavy metal group AC/DC, has now become
the anthem for the business/political/media elite's longtime obsession
with enacting a special transportation tax at the regional ends of the
Last Tuesday, the ordinary people in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads
rejected the multimillion dollar VOTE YES campaigns of the local Power
Establishments by overwhelmingly voting NO WAY to a regional sales tax.
The usual pundits and soothsayers are saying this is just your garden
variety "Virginia Isn't For Lovers of Higher Taxes" election
The old adage says hindsight is always 20-20. But this truism is now
in jeopardy, as Virginia's "experts" are proving blind to the
larger political meaning of this dual rejection. They have just
witnessed one of those "critical mass" events in Virginia
politics, not some generic, run-of-the-mill anti-tax votes occurring as
a matter of course all across the United States on more occasions than
Yet all they can see is an election about the governor and taxes,
leading them to a journalistic tug-of-war between a political variant of
Freud's Ego and ID. It is the new WoodStein media ethic, where the
reporter/pundit and the public official are now in competition with each
The day of the reporter as observer, as factual analyst, is no
So be it. But I am of the old school in terms of election analysis. The
biggest mistake reporters make is to assume endorsements from major
political figures or business leaders and newspapers have a great deal
of sway on populist issues such as the Tidewater and NoVa tax issues.
These are seldom won on top-down issues; rather, they are bottoms-up
campaigns because there would be no need for such unprecedented measures
if the politicians had been doing their job.
So let's endeavor to think outside-the-conventional wisdom box and try
to put the "local tax option" solution rejected by the voters
on Tuesday in its historic context. It was an idea developed in good
measure to get around the short-changing of the Northern Virginia region
by the rural/Western/Good Old Boy legislators long in control of the
General Assembly. They wrote the state formula's allocating how the tax
dollars sent to Richmond are returned to the regions to provide
education and transportation services, among other things.
Thus, to put the vote last week into proper, analytical perspective --
to understand why this was a "critical mass" event -- we need
to take Jules Verne's Time Machine back to late 1988. Back then, Gov.
Jerry Baliles was on vacation somewhere South of Florida, focusing on
the Transportation Issue as he often did. During the 1980s, the
political and financial powers of the Northern Virginia business/media
establishment had grown dramatically, overwhelming the Richmond Main
Street boys who had been the financial angels for the Byrd Coalition
ascendancy in Virginia politics.
Northern Virginia had long been the political whipping boy of the
old-line establishment. Indeed, Gov. Mills Godwin in the mid-1970s even
suggested the commonwealth would be better off if someone took an axe
and chopped off the state around the Marine Corps in Quantico, leaving
the rest of NoVa for Maryland, the District of Columbia or some other
Clearly, and with good reason, the power-brokering establishment in
Northern Virginia was increasingly unhappy with their domination by this
Gov. Baliles shared their frustration and so he came up with the idea of
giving localities in the fast-growing region the right to enact their
own transportation levy. From the standpoint of pure, governmental
theory, the original formulation of his idea, the one that germinated in
the tropical sunshine, is perfectly in keeping with Jeffersonian
But Baliles' reasoning for the tax measure encompassed more than a
Jeffersonian view of trusting local residents to know best how to govern
themselves. There was also a far more practical point.
Baliles agreed with the NoVa power establishment that the region needed
more transportation money.
Accordingly -- and here is the key for our 2002 analysis -- the governor
knew the region had only two basic ways for the state to help them get
this money given the Dillon rule.
One way was to get the General Assembly to recalculate the allocation
formulas. They were skewed unfairly against Northern Virginia, as they
were crafted to redistribute funds from the wealthier NoVa region to the
poorer areas of the state.
Baliles himself had supported these formulas, for he was born in rural
Patrick County and had long planned to run statewide. Moreover, the
basic concept of trying to make sure the poorer children of the state
and their hard-working families can make a better life for themselves is
a traditional American one. Thus, the state formula moves extra tax
money from wealthier areas to less wealthy areas by broad consensus of
all the Republicans and Democrats in charge of state government over the
Thus, there was always a tacit understanding in the General Assembly to
keep any public discussion of these formula to an absolute minimum, as
they are filled with political land mines. It is often very difficult
for any incumbent to defend his or her position even to voters who
actually get back far more tax dollars than they send in.
The business and political elite in NoVa, and increasingly Tidewater,
understood this reality in 1989. Thus, while knowing their regions were
being shortchanged in areas such as transportation by existing state
allocation formulas, it was not possible to harp on this situation
without antagonizing their powerful friends in the General Assembly and
|The power elite saw the regional tax as the
idea solution: Get new tax funds to NoVa and Tidewater
without upsetting the state's traditional allocation
formula. Other, more powerful forces, however were coming
into play to which they were oblivious
-- and again, this is key -- the Baliles idea for a local regional
transportation tax was in some measure conceived as a way to get around
the rural/Western/Good Ole Boy control of the General Assembly. Since
the formulas couldn't be changed to more accurately reflect NoVa's and
Tidewater's growing size, then the only option available to the business
and political establishment was a local tax where they would get to
spend all the money in their own region.
It was, as they say in game theory, the least, worst option.
From the perspective of the power elite, it was an ideal solution. They
are convinced the state needs far more road money than it currently
generates with the existing tax structure. Accordingly, from their
perspective, some new revenue measure is inevitable. Thus, if they can
get one which lets NoVa keep all the new tax money generated in the
region, it is the best of all possible taxing worlds, not to mention
they will run it independently of VDOT.
But during this 1989 through 2002 period when the elite were selling
their practical idea, something else was happening in Northern Virginia.
The resentment of the ordinary citizen over the anti-NoVa bias they saw
at the General Assembly in Richmond was building.
also: Part 2
Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002