The car tax as a Senate voting issue

The Top Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

“Since my time as your governor,” Jim Gilmore writes in a fundraising letter that went out last week, “I have routinely been vilified by the biased liberal media, by the state Democratic Party and even by the liberal tax-and-spend members of my own party. Why? Because I promised to cut the car tax – and I did.”

Gilmore has, for better or worse, tried to make his late 1990s pledge as a gubernatorial candidate to eliminate the local personal-property tax on cars and trucks, aka the car tax, a central item in his 2008 U.S. Senate campaign. I would say that it hasn’t caught on given a look at the poll numbers that have the former governor trailing his successor, Democrat Mark Warner, by 25 points as we head into the fall, but that hasn’t stopped Gilmore, obviously, from plowing ahead anyway.

The cynical side of me wants to say it’s because Gilmore desperately needs people to think like it’s 1999 when they head into the voting booth. The practical political side of me agrees with Matt Smyth at the University of Virginia Center for Politics that Gilmore has to try to do something to reverse his Senate-race fortunes right now. “It makes sense from a strategic standpoint when you’re trailing a candidate in the polls and in the fundraising in the way that Gilmore is trailing Warner at this point. You have to attack from all angles and see what’s going to catch on,” Smyth said. “Go through the policy differences, go through the ideology differences, go through the character issues, if there are any there. Gilmore is raising the issue of trust – can you take a candidate at his word based on the car-tax issue raising taxes or not raising taxes once in office?”

So I can see where the Gilmore campaign is going with this. But if Gilmore isn’t trying to evoke 1999, a year into the implementation of the Gilmore car-tax cut in Virginia, then is he dredging up 2001 or 2002 and the early years of the Bush tax cut that in retrospect looks quite a bit foolish in the wake of the record federal budget deficits that it has helped spawn? That’s one criticism that one could lay down here. The second has to do with the salience of tax issues in general right now given the current state of the economy. “Elections are about the future, and rarely ever about the past. And what matters in this election are energy prices, the economy, health care, education, crime. People want to talk about what’s going on at their kitchen table, not some previous fights from years past,” said Chris Saxman, a Republican member of the House of Delegates who briefly explored initiating a campaign for the GOP Senate nomination late last year.

“I think most Virginians will tell you that while they were grateful to have their car tax cut, they still want more. It’s like the old Janet Jackson song. What have you done for me lately? They want today’s problems solved. They don’t want to dredge up the problems of the late ’90s. This is the late Aughts,” Saxman said.

From the way Gilmore identified his critics in his fundraising letter, the fiscal-conservative Saxman would be considered a “liberal tax-and-spend” member of the Republican Party of Virginia. So would another fiscal conservative, Steve Landes, another Valley Republican member of the Virginia General Assembly who, like Saxman, agrees that voters in 2008 are more focused on the here-and-now issues than that late ’90s car-tax cut. “The only difficulty with the car tax was that for whatever reason the administrations, starting with the Gilmore administration, weren’t able to phase it out completely, and the General Assembly hasn’t been able to do that, either, although there have been some efforts to do that in the past. And with the budget situation, it’s probably not going to be something that would be doable, at least at this point,” Landes said.

Landes makes an important point there. As much as Gilmore has tried to make it the case that the fact that the state has failed to fully phase out the car-tax cut is the fault of Warner, it was Gilmore who was first unable to come up with the monies to finish the tax cut. I’ll add here that it has been on the watch of a bipartisan grouping of the Warner and Kaine Democratic administrations and a state legislature that has had a GOP majority in its House of Delegates and had a Republican majority in its Senate through January 2008 that the stalemate on the final year of the phaseout has continued.

Which is why I can’t figure out why the Gilmore team is still making the issue out of the car tax that it is. I mean, do the Gilmore folks think it’s really worth the effort given how much has transpired in Virginia politics since the tax cut was enacted? I posed that question to Smyth at the UVa. Center for Politics. “At this point, people have thought about it and certainly made up their mind as to how they feel it fits into Virginia politics in general and how it affects which candidate they will support. So it’s unlikely to have an effect in terms of shifting support in one direction or another,” Smyth said. “It’s certainly going to ring true with the anti-tax wing of the Republican Party and that portion of the electorate. But it’s probably not going to convert any undecided voters, of which there don’t seem to be a whole lot of right now, at least in the Senate cycle.”


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