Why I oppose the sales tax referendum

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 22, 2002

I voted against raising taxes on Hampton Roads citizens through a tax referendum because it represents a radically new public policy in transportation funding that is unfair and sets a dangerous precedent.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has the responsibility to prove an adequate, modern, safe and efficient transportation network for the entire commonwealth, and the needs of all Virginians should be addressed on a statewide basis. We should not have a hodgepodge approach to the problem. Once we start on this path, we will have a patchwork of separate tax regions for transportation around the entire commonwealth.

I believe the financial mechanism used in administering the program creates a constitutional and financial quagmire from which there is no valid escape. This is a state sales tax, which the state is imposing. Since the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission has no authority to raise taxes, these revenues are state revenues. Article 10, Section 7, of the Constitution of Virginia mandates that all state revenues be placed in the state treasury and that state revenues can only be appropriated for two and one-half years. Each legislature appropriates what they deem fit; this is why one legislature cannot bind a future legislature.

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Another point which I believe is totally unacceptable is the fact that if a locality does not pass the referendum, but a majority of the voters of this new tax district approves the referendum, then those localities that voted against the tax have no choice but to pay the tax even through the citizens of that jurisdiction voted against the tax.

We are independent counties and cities who will lose our right to control our tax dollars. As citizens we have the right to directly elect the people who tax us. The Planning District Commission that will spend the taxes you objected to paying is not directly elected by the people. It is bad public policy to pay for another layer of government when we have not voted for a regional government as required by the constitution.

The legislation states that &uot;the Planning District Commission may use any moneys it receives…to pay for operating an maintenance costs relating to any Project, or relating to the Program, provided under this act.&uot; There is no time limit on how long this tax will be imposed and no independent oversight. The legislation specifically states that two conditions must be met before the tax stops: the bonds must be paid and the roads must be completed. We were told that this tax will be imposed for only 35 years, but that is a totally misleading statement.

Why would the General Assembly pass something that is questionable as to its constitutionality? Those elected officials who are campaigning &uot;for&uot; the referendum are in favor of raising taxes. They wanted to get this legislation passed in any manner. In my opinion, they ignored not only the policy questions, but also the constitutional requirements and shunned their responsibility to the voters by &uot;passing the buck&uot; to their constituents, by asking them to raise their taxes by way of referendum. If the legislature believes that there is a crisis in transportation, as there was in 1986, then the legislature has the responsibility of address the need on a statewide basis and in accordance to the constitution.

There is a perception that I am opposed to all tolls. That is not true. I am opposed to placing tolls on roads, which we have already built and paid for in order to use the monies for other projects. I do not want to re-toll roads like the Downtown or Midtown tunnels.

Asking our constituents to tax themselves is wrong. We are a republican form of government, and it is the legislature’s responsibility and sworn duty to make the decisions that our citizens sent us to Richmond to make. This is a dangerous precedent that our founding fathers did not embrace upon the founding of our government.

Raising taxes is not the solution. We are in a recession. We should not burden our citizens with a regressive sales tax. In a time of recession, we should do what is necessary to streamline government to make it more efficient. After the 1989 recession and throughout the 90s, we had one of the greatest increase in productivity and an exceptional growth in government revenues. When the economy becomes robust again, as it will, more revenues will come into state government. Those revenues should then be used to fund needs we have, not only in transportation, but in education, health and public safety.

Johnny S. Joannou represents the 79th District in the Virginia House of Delegates.