This is the end of the road for kicking the can

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Print this page by Robert Powell

The wisest words I ever heard about the legislative process came from the mouth of a 10-year-old.

About 30 years ago, a group of fifth-graders traveled from Gainesville, Ga., to Atlanta to see the Georgia General Assembly in action.

While the pupils watched quietly from the gallery, the raucous state House of Representatives went about its business. Legislators wandered the floor like stray dogs, talking among themselves while disregarding anyone trying to make a point about a bill. Presiding over the chaos was the powerful speaker of the house. Wielding a gavel in one hand, he draped his other arm on the shoulders of a succession of visitors who had lined up for souvenir photos.

After observing the legislature for about an hour, the pupils filed out.  As they waited for a school bus to take them home, several offered their impressions for a newspaper story. One boy shook his head. “If I behaved the way they do, I’d be sent to the principal’s office.”

That fifth-grader now would be in his 40s, and I wonder if he had a sense of déjà vu watching recent events unfold in Washington. Faced with the grim task of averting the fiscal cliff, Congress and the president instead have elevated children’s games to the level of professional sports.

“Kicking the can down the road,” the ubiquitous description of Washington’s procrastination, evokes the image of a bunch of boys aimlessly ambling home after school. Meanwhile, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have marked out the bargaining positions of 6-year-olds: If you don’t play by my rules, I’m going to take my ball and go home.

The New Year’s Day deal that resulted from this bungling process solved very little. While it made tax cuts permanent for households earning less than $450,000 a year, it did not address raising the debt ceiling or blunting sequestration, the $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts mandated by the last debt ceiling agreement. So instead of one cliff, we now have a series of them. That challenge requires Washington to muster in the next few weeks the political courage that it hasn’t shown in haggling over these issues for the past year and a half.

Virginia has a lot of skin in the game. The commonwealth received $59.4 billion in federal contracts in fiscal year 2011, $42.8 billion of which came from Department of Defense. Half of automatic budgets cuts that would take place under sequestration, about $500 billion over 10 years, will affect defense spending.

In early January, economist Christine Chmura told an economic conference audience in Richmond that sequestration could send Virginia to recession and cost the state about 156,000 jobs. Already, she noted, Virginia’s economy is growing slower than the national average because of the continued uncertainty about the budget.

At the same event, Gov. Bob McDonnell weighed in with this assessment: “The government is broke, and Congress is broken.”

The governor also used the opportunity to suggest something big was about to happen on transportation funding, an issue that the Virginia General Assembly, in Washington fashion, has kicked down the road for nearly 27 years. He told the audience his proposal, to be unveiled the next week, would include “some things that you will all love, and you will all hate.”

He wasn’t bluffing. McDonnell’s plan would scrap Virginia’s 17.5 cents a gallon gasoline tax, which has not changed since 1986. Instead, the commonwealth would raise its sales tax to 5.8 cents on the dollar and dedicate a larger share of that revenue to transportation. McDonnell says this would raise $1.8 billion for highway construction during the next five years. 

The plan is a bold stroke for a governor who during the past three years has tried every imaginable way to gin up revenue for roads without raising taxes. While he succeeded in issuing $3 billion in bonds, McDonnell failed in an attempt to sell the commonwealth’s ABC liquor stores.  The jury is still out on the wisdom of efforts to place tollbooths on Interstate 95 and sell naming rights for roads and bridges.

If the governor’s proposal succeeds, Virginia would become the first state in the country to abolish its gas tax.  The logic behind that move is that, even indexed to inflation, the tax will fail to keep pace with the state’s growing needs.

Increasingly fuel-efficient cars will continue to erode the value of the tax.

McDonnell’s plan already has passed an important test. It is an equal opportunity offender. It has been attacked by General Assembly Democrats and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. When an idea unites enemies like that, it must have power.

Even if the proposal doesn’t make it through the Republican-dominated legislature in its current form, the issue is now on the table, and the public expects action. Unlike any field trip to Washington, fifth-graders visiting the state Capitol in Richmond this month likely will see a big task finally being tackled.

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