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2007-01-10 / Opinions

COMMENTARY

By R. Lee Ware (R-65th) VIRGINIA HOUSE OF DELEGATES

Ware Ware One of the principal obligations of any legislator, I believe, is to vigilantly guard the public purse, which contains monies generated solely by taxpayers, both individual and corporate. Accordingly, when the House of Delegates convenes on Jan. 10, for either a general tax increase or massive increases in state spending, not least for transportation.

Virginia's economy is in moderate good health. Predictions for the new year call for economic growth somewhere in the range of two to three percent. However, spending by both state and federal governments has for several years far outstripped growth in the private sector. Further, governmental spending has been rising faster than taxpayers' incomes.

For example, over the past decade, state spending through the General Fund has increased by almost 80 percent, from $16.5 billion in 1996 to $29 billion in 2005. This tabulates to an average annual increase of seven percent. About 44 percent of the increase was due to inflation, and another 15 percent was due to an increase in population.

Clearly, the average taxpayer has not enjoyed an annual seven percent increase in income. And just last year, the General Assembly approved a biennial budget for 2006-2008, rising from roughly $63 billion to around $74 billion, an increase of 15 percent. Moreover, it was only three years ago that the former governor and State Senate combined forces to secure the largest general tax increase in many years at $1.4 billion.

For being frugal with taxpayers' dollars, many members of the House of Delegates are characterized as "anti-tax" by the capitol media. For myself, I can say only that I am by no means reflexively "anti-tax" or, for that matter, reflexively "anti" anything. Rather, I believe it is imperative that government be as fiscally disciplined as every individual and family - and jobgenerating company - must be. And the fact is, government, especially at the federal level, has been everything but disciplined with the public purse for many years.

In the House, the Republican majority, of which I am proud to be a member, is determined to continue to establish strict guidelines for spending taxpayers' dollars. Already the governor is proposing new spending for pre-kindergarten-aged children, a proposal that might sound fine on the surface but which is fraught with not only fiscal but ideological controversy, involving as it does the extension of the state into even earlier years of a child's - hence a family's - private life. I will examine the merits of the governor's proposal as a teacher, a parent and a legislator of conservative convictions with regard to the proper powers, roles and reach of government.

The major budget focus of the new assembly will of course be a variety of proposals to increase state spending for transportation. No doubt, too, the House will again be characterized as merely opposed to increased taxes for roads, rail and other means of transportation. In fact, the House has joined in allocation of billions of new money for transportation projects in just the last four years. Just as importantly, the House has refused to acquiesce in new taxes for transportation apart from meaningful reform of the manner in which Virginia plans, builds and funds its transportation systems. The traffic congestion that is synonymous with northern Virginia and Hampton Roads is proof positive that what was done in the past must not be repeated for the future. In addition, the House has insisted that land-use reform be an integral part of the state's development of new transportation projects. Already sprawl has forever disfigured the landscape of huge portions of the commonwealth. Development of housing fuels the economy, of course, but massive residential growth also confronts government at the local level as well as the state level with enormous challenges, and developments do not often generate the taxes necessary to build the traffic systems required of increased numbers of motorists.

These elements of the House majority's position on transportation were given almost no meaningful attention in the press last year. However, my own constituents can see at every intersection, and all along Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road, the urgency of getting a handle on the manner in which "growth" and the transportation systems needed to respond to growth are planned as well as funded. My commitment is to a broad-based approach to transportation planning and spending that does not require massive new taxes on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, proceeds without regard for the "quality of life" that remains of fundamental importance to most Virginians.

Requests for additional state spending will come from all quarters when session convenes this week. My practice is to give new requests the careful consideration they deserve while remembering that the "pie" of state resources - that is, taxpayers' dollars - is only so large. Inevitably there are more requests for new monies than can be met without undoing the delicate balance between a just tax rate and a just appropriation of state dollars. It is in striking that balance that a legislator's principal challenge lies.

Because 2007 is an election year for all members of the state Senate as well as of the House of Delegates, we can be certain that fundamental disagreements about rates of taxation and spending will be engaged on many issues - not only transportation - during the 46-day session. Whether or not the Senate is as insistent on new taxes as has been the case for the past four years may very well determine the tone of these debates. My own contribution to these deliberations will be to insist on strict fiscal discipline. To that end, I have re-introduced a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution (previously championed by Congressman Eric Cantor when he was a state delegate) to limit the increase in state spending in any given year to the rate of growth in state domestic product, inflation and population. My similar proposal two years ago was passed by the House but was deadlocked in the Finance Committee of the Senate.

Maybe the outcome will be better this year. For the sake of taxpayers, I certainly hope so.

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