David Reynolds: Think Virginia

This column is not for wine lovers. Rather, it is directed to my conservative friends who have no love for government, who think that all governments are nothing more than intrusions into our private lives, who never met a tax they liked and who believe that all public budgets should be filed under fiction.

Sorry, fellow conservatives, your anger does not hold water. It will get you nowhere. Except more frustration. And frustration is where the tea party movement is headed unless it learns to separate the good from the bad from the ugly.

Instead of reducing government spending, why not first try to redirect it? The argument to shift public expenditures from a one-size-fits-all national government to fifty states is a compelling one. Besides it has the backing of the United States Constitution.

So, how about a short primer on Virginia’s budget? Purpose: To turn the current negative mood into something positive.

Next month our state reps will again follow the cold waters of the James to look inside the budget numbers. When they get to Richmond this is what they will see.

First, they will see double. Virginia has two major funds spread over two years. But in essence, its “Biennium Budget” is a book set, two budgets adjusted annually.

Of its two funds, the smaller (40%) General Fund is key. It is a discretionary fund drawn from instate revenues, mainly the income tax (71%) and the sales tax (21%). The fund must balance.

The other fund, the Nongeneral Fund, is a nondiscretionary fund. Its principal revenue sources are the Federal Government (42%), institutional fees charged by schools and hospitals (24%) and the gas tax (10%).

The 2011-12 Biennium Budget for both funds currently totals $76 billion with education receiving 40%, health programs 28%, transportation 12% and public safety 7%. About a third goes to localities, principally for schools (poor districts get more; rich get less) and for maintenance of secondary roads. VDOT will spend over $6 billion.

Now compare essential state spending with federal spending which, outside of defense and interest, primarily results in the redistribution of wealth and income.

So, fellow conservatives, there is nothing wrong with tying up federal revenues in the form of block grants and shipping money down I-95 to Richmond to be spent on schools, roads and our health and safety. As long as there are no strings attached.

But there is a problem, one of accountability. One government collects the tax; another government spends it. The problem arises because our national government has preempted the major revenues sources, mainly the individual income tax and corporate taxes. This leaves the states holding a tax bag with limited income taxes, a regressive sales tax and an unpopular property tax for its localities.

Not a good system of tax-and-spend. Remember the original (Boston) Tea Party? It was about a distant government imposing a tax. We have made progress since 1775, but none during my lifetime. Americans are now at the point that many feel that Washington is as foreign a tax collector as London.

We have lost the marvel of federalism. Government is no longer close to the people. It is foreign to the people. Solution: Reinvent federalism. Enforce Amendment X to the Constitution. Think Richmond, not Washington.

With your help we can make good state (and local) government better. That means that you and I need to better follow what The Commonwealth of Virginia is up to, how the state is spending our money and which state laws are have a direct impact on our lives. (Most do.) That is often difficult with so little news being reported from Richmond. How about televising the proceedings of the General Assembly? Or how about attempting to make the state budget more understandable?

Yes, there are many ways to “Think Virginia,” to make its government as good as its people. After all, isn’t that the objective of every democracy? It’s been 403 years since the landing at Jamestown. It is about time we learn more about Virginia than as a place for lovers.

Column by David Reynolds

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