A Dream Tax 

No doubt there are responsible, constructive legislators who could be spared. But not the party leaders — Democratic and Republican. And certainly not the senators and delegates who, forgetting that they work for us, allowed the budget process to degenerate into a less violent version of the trench warfare that made World War I so unpopular.

We expect that sort of nonsense from Congress. Virginians, historically, have been more responsible.

Until 2006.

In assessing this year's budget deadlock, there's plenty of blame to go around:

  • The House Republicans remain mired in the mind-set of the Allen-Gilmore era, endlessly pandering to the tribe of whiny narcissists who resent paying taxes for the privilege of living in a more-or-less civilized society.

  • The Senate Republicans eventually found their way to flexibility, but only after they'd weakened themselves by their initial lack of candor. Their effort to smuggle through a tax increase as part of an omnibus budget act not only threatened the long-term integrity of Virginia's budget-making process, it also accomplished the near-impossible feat of giving House Republicans the moral high ground.

  • The minority Democrats were effectively neutered, but their willingness to stand gleefully by while Republicans waged bicameral warfare hardly demonstrated the sort of vision and leadership that justifies returning them to power in 2007.

  • As for Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who doesn't come up for re-election next year, we can ignore for the present his incomprehensible attempt to intervene. Suffice it to say that McDonnell established little beyond his utter unsuitability for higher office.

    In 2007, Virginians have an opportunity to make legislative heads roll. Regardless of philosophy, party or past attachment, we should all relish the opportunity to oust the politicians responsible for this year's budget mess.

    It won't happen, of course. But we can dream.

    And since we're dreaming, why not fantasize that our next General Assembly not only avoids this year's absurdities, but also deals constructively with Virginia's transportation mess? Why not dream that it also found the political will to begin addressing America's dangerous dependence on imported oil?

    Imagine that, in 2008, a new General Assembly voted to find additional transportation revenues while harnessing market forces to encourage energy conservation — by enacting a whopping surtax on gasoline of, say, 50 cents a gallon.

    Too radical, you say?

    Fair enough. Virginians have long based their daily routines upon our habitual means of getting around — a solitary individual behind the wheel of a private vehicle. We've designed our communities — or what pass for communities — based upon this remarkably inefficient, isolated mode of transport.

    Let's concede that we can't expect Virginians to make sudden, radical changes in their daily lives, especially when alternative forms of transportation aren't available.

    Still, we can dream.

    Let's dream that our bold, new legislature enacted the 50-cent gasoline surtax starting with the 31st gallon of gasoline purchased in a given month.

    Annually, the commonwealth would issue each licensed driver a magnetized card, like a grocery store valued customer card, readable at every pump in Virginia. This card would automatically exempt the bearer from the surtax for the first 30 gallons purchased each month, and impose it thereafter.

    This surtax would have a minimal impact on Virginians who drive fuel-efficient vehicles. Statistically, the average American drives 10,000 miles a year, which works out to about 30 gallons per month in a car getting 28 mpg.

    Of course, those who prefer gas-guzzlers would have to chip in a bit more for the privilege, so the surtax might prove a nightmare for those who insist on driving Hummers. These wastrels might ask, in petulant tones, why they should be taxed for exercising their personal choice.

    We will answer that in the case of fossil fuels, each driver's personal choice affects us all. Gasoline prices are ultimately set by the law of supply and demand. The more we consume, the greater the demand. The greater the demand, the higher the price — for everyone.

    Moreover, we will point out that our dependence on foreign oil has become a matter of national security, contributing to our dangerously high trade deficits, forcing us to remain militarily involved in the world's most volatile and unstable region and occasionally compelling us to put up with intolerable behavior from pipsqueak regimes like, say, Iran.

    In our dreams, these arguments would suffice to silence the gluttons and the narcissists. In the spirit of civic solidarity the founders once called "commonwealth," Virginians would rally behind their legislators and embrace the surtax.

    Before we awaken from our dream, let's add one more fantasy: that our new General Assembly found the courage to stare down the powerful road-building lobby, devoting every penny of the surtax to light rail, HOV lanes, car-pooling incentives, bikeways and safer pedestrian options.

    Our dream surtax — 50 cents a gallon, starting with the 31st gallon each month — would set an example to the nation. Besides its real contribution to reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, it would lower Virginia's contribution to global warming.

    As new market forces kicked in, families would consolidate trips, commuters would look into carpooling and new car buyers would consider more efficient models. Smart drivers might even slow down a bit, making the highways safer for everyone.

    As an added bonus, the surtax would exercise a subtle, steady pressure against suburban sprawl while providing a new incentive for resettling and revitalizing our cities.

    Of course, 'tis all a dream. Virginia's present General Assembly would never pass the surtax, and it's sheer fantasy to imagine that Virginia voters would actually clean house, voting out the politicians who created this year's legislative disgrace.

    After 2007, we'll doubtless see most of the same faces back in the General Assembly — with the same party leaders in charge — and nary a new idea among them.

    But until then, we can dream. S

    'Rick Gray is a writer who lives in Chesterfield County.

    Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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