Democrat critical of Kaine on car tax; will push gas-tax index to boost transportation dollars
Story by Chris Graham
Remember how upset Fairfax Democrat Chap Petersen was right after Gov. Tim Kaine proposed last month to replace the car-tax relief program that dates back to the administration of Jim Gilmore with a 1 percent state income-tax hike that would go to localities in exchange for their agreement to eliminate car taxes completely?
It doesn’t get much better than “hell, no, not for this Democrat.”
Petersen has had three weeks to mull the proposal over. “My thoughts haven’t changed a bit,” the state senator said in an interview with VirginiaPoliticsToday.com on Wednesday.
“People say the car-tax cut was a mistake. But that’s basically saying that helping middle-class families is a mistake. And I don’t think it’s a mistake. It’s a program that has helped families directly by giving them several hundred dollars of tax relief every year. So you may say that’s a misallocation of resources, and certainly we can debate that, but I would hardly call it a mistake when the money is going to the general population as opposed to a special interests,” Petersen said.
The 2010 General Assembly session promises to have its moments of contention as lawmakers struggle to get free from an ever-tightening state-revenue noose. For Northern Virginia legislators like Petersen, the demand for action on the signature issue of the early 21st century, transportation, hasn’t receded along with the decline in state revenues.
“We have these kind of boom-and-bust periods in Virginia where we either seem to be doing well or times are really tough. When I was first elected to the legislature in 2001, right on the heels of 9/11, it was a tough economy, and it seems like we’re on the same track. If anything, this recession seems more deep-seated and has more longer-lasting effects. We have to find the ways to balance the budget, try to keep core services on track and keep moving forward,” said Petersen, who will be carrying among his items of proposed legislation SB 114, a bill to index the state gas tax to reflect the increasing fuel efficiencies of vehicles.
“As people are converting more and more to hybrids around the state, some of our traditional tax revenues, especially the gas tax, are going to become increasingly outdated unless we find a way to index them to reflect the increasing fuel efficiency,” Petersen said.
The index, as a matter of course, could and likely would result in an effective tax increase. With a Republican governor and a strengthened GOP majority in the House of Delegates in the political mix in Richmond, Petersen just hopes for a fair hearing of the idea given the stakes in the transportation-funding arena.
“The new governor seems to be looking at some different ideas. My only suggestion would be, he campaigned on not raising taxes, and sure, that’s great, but I think within our tax system you have to be flexible. You can’t be an ideologue. I hope he will remain flexible enough to be able to solve problems,” Petersen said.
The first few weeks of the 2010 General Assembly session will be something of a feeling-out time for Democrats and Republicans alike with the new dynamic with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in eight years.
“The way our system works, there is always going to be some degree of an adversarial nature to our proceedings. It’s kind of like trying a legal case, which I do for a living. One side represents the prosecution, one side represents the defense, you both present your case, you argue zealously, and hopefully in the end the result is justice. There’s always a degree of institutional combat expected in a legislature. By the same token, I don’t want Democrats in the legislature to just be opposed to everything just on principle,” Petersen said.
“There are going to be some areas where we work with the governor. There are going to be some areas, quite frankly, where I feel like he’s proposing things that individual Democrats have spoken in favor of. For example, I’m one who has said that we ought to look into privatizing ABC as a potential way of slimming down costs and raising revenue,” Petersen said.
“I didn’t support Bob McDonnell in the election. I voted for Creigh Deeds. I’m disappointed that things went as poorly as they did. But Bob’s there, and he won it fair and square, and at the end of the day, we’re going to represent everybody, no matter what political party they are, and that’s what we’ve got to do,” Petersen said.