My Cousin Vinny

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 20, 2004

With all due respect to Speaker William Howell, the most important man in the House of Delegates, if not Virginia, right now is Vince Callahan, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He is low-profile, low-tax, unlike his Senate counterpart Finance Chairman John Chichester, the high priest of high taxes and fiscally irresponsible tax expenditures.

When &uot;Maximum John&uot; unveiled his tax plan, it was given gubernatorial-style coverage by the media. Insiders claim Gov. Warner actually wants Chichester’s larger tax plan, not his own, to pass.

In broad terms, their advisors seem to have considered three basic scenarios, believing each one a sure win for Warner and Chichester if they don’t lose their nerve: (1) a Warner veto of any budget not containing a general tax increase; (2) another Chichester-manufactured budget stalemate as in 2001, with &uot;Maximum John&uot; refusing to budge unless he gets a general tax increase; (3) House DEMS loyal to Warner refusing to support any House budget plan lacking a general tax increase, thus creating an unprecedented situation where Howell lacks enough GOP votes to pass a house budget.


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All three are aimed at sending House Republicans this ultimatum: Pass our general tax increase or Warner will use his bully pulpit to turn Howell into Newt Gingrich and blame the House GOP for the government shutdown required by law unless a new state budget is in place by July 1.

This cockiness is expressed in the following email, forwarded to me, summing up their thinking: [name deleted]:

[If] Mark sticks to his veto and doesn’t buckle, he’s got them. Budget deadlock, anyone? No, they tried that.. [in 2001]. A second time would prove disastrous [for the GOP]. I really do think Mark will be immovable… This is his last shot to shape the state’s history…&uot;

Let me say this: The email is real, but something doesn’t ring true to me. Was this &uot;Macho Mark&uot; strategy cooked-up while the hit song from the Village People, &uot;Macho Man,&uot; was playing at a strategy session at the Governor’s Mansion?

So permit me to humbly suggest another scenario, one any Democrat should weigh before risking it all for a seat on the High Tax Express: At the end of the day, Gov. Warner backs Vinny Callahan, not &uot;Maximum John.&uot;

Consider these words from Mr. Callahan in Margaret Edds’ column for The Virginian-Pilot:

&uot;We’re going to operate on that premise,&uot; [Callahan] said, when asked if he believes the House can meet spending goals without a general tax increase. But Callahan acknowledged … it will probably have to be done leaving the car-tax reduction frozen at 70 percent and without eliminating the estate tax.&uot; (Emphasis added.)

This is bombshell material. Why? The Warner/Chichester tax plans both include a budget-busting 100-percent car tax phase out and virtual elimination of the estate tax. The governor says he stands by previous statements that both of these actions are fiscally irresponsible but he says he had no choice but to include them in his tax plan because the House GOP would demand them as the price of a budget deal.

Yet Callahan suggests that was never true.

Moreover, Callahan’s interview exposes the phoniness of Chichester and his editorial backers. In 2001, &uot;Maximum John&uot; sparked the budget fiasco by rejecting 70 percent car tax repeal on the grounds it would bust the budget and hurt education. Editorial writers and education groups lauded his stance. But now, he not only advocates 100 percent phase out, he’s willing to abandon a law he demanded – the 1998 budget cap limiting car tax rebates to 8.5 percent of General Fund revenues – in order to do it!

This situation fuels my sense that the whole &uot;Macho Mark&uot; scenario doesn’t ring true. First, a governor cannot veto his own rhetoric: He can veto only legislation the house and senate have jointly passed. But if this House and Senate agree to a budget, I am supposed to believe Mark Warner will veto it and tell Virginians he did so because the General Assembly didn’t tax them enough?

When pigs fly.

Second, let’s examine the rhetoric around the expected budget stalemate between the House and Senate. As we know, the House and Senate pass their own version of the budget and then each body appoints representatives to meet at a storied Budget Conference to merge them into one acceptable plan. Then each house gets to vote up or down on the new, unified budget.

The Warner/Chichester stalemate strategy is seemingly based on a presumption that the House budget will reject virtually all new revenue proposals from any tax or user fee while demanding new tax cuts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. With all sides conceding roughly a billion dollar gap before the additional revenue drains from any new tax cut, administration officials therefore say the House Republicans will have no choice but to balance their budget bill with draconian cuts to essential services, inflated growth estimates and budget gimmicks if they insist on not raising general taxes.

Will the Stalemate Scenario transpire like that? Not long after Warner unveiled his budget proposal last December, I outlined a No General Tax Increase budget that was pro-education, pro-growth, shored-up the highway maintenance fund, met other critical needs, while avoiding the traps in the Governor’s plan that overburdened the general fund with unprecedented commitments for new roads, and committed the state to new out-year expenditures that would wreck state finances and be unfair to poorer, more rural Virginians. My plan would protect the AAA rating and held out the possibility of a food tax if the numbers worked out.

Surely, Vinny Callahan and his ace budget guy, Robert Vaughn, know the numbers far better than I.

So, I ask Democrats: Suppose the conventional stalemate wisdom is wrong? Clearly, the Callahan interview suggests he wants to produce what I will call a &uot;less taxes, less spending&uot; House budget alternative to the Warner plan, one that satisfies – and then some – the four conditions Warner laid out last week.

Surely any thinking Democrat can see Vinny’s strategy. He wants to make Warner answer this question: Why are you backing Chichester’s general tax increase and threatened government shutdown when the House budget meets your budget conditions on education, AAA bond rating, state employee benefits, fiscal integrity and accounting rules?

Granted, if you accept the &uot;Macho Mark&uot; approach his advisors say is guaranteed, then you believe Warner will back the Senate even if presented with such a sound, No General Tax Increase choice.

When those same pigs fly back.

Admittedly, the political elite may get the last laugh because Vinny knows that one or two modest user fees – a gas tax for maintenance, not new roads, and a cigarette levy hike to pay for health bills of smokers – is needed for a slam-dunk No General Tax Increase budget.

So, yes, House GOP members might revolt against Callahan and Howell, thereby missing a once-in-a-generation chance to trump the political establishment that has mocked them, reduce the Senate to yesterday’s news, and establish the House has the 800 pound Gorilla at Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol. As a Democrat, I do hope they miss this fat pitch.

Which brings us to scenario (3) above: Warner loyalists among House Democrats refusing to support any House budget that does not include a General Tax Increase. Yes, this maneuver might make it impossible for the House to pass its budget. But it would expose House Democrats – and thus the whole party – to a withering crossfire of editorial and public condemnation.

Warner likewise would come under intense pressure to disown the strategy. If he did, House Democrats couldn’t sustain the revolt.

Bottom line: &uot;Macho Mark&uot; is far easier said than done.

So I suggest to Democrats again: At the end of the day, assuming no House GOP revolt, Vinny’s preferred &uot;less taxes, less spending&uot; budget is going to put Warner in a very difficult spot. The governor didn’t move here yesterday from Connecticut. He knows, better than most, that the timely backing of a responsible &uot;less taxes, less spending&uot; budget avoids the Tax Governor label guaranteed by the &uot;Macho Mark&uot; strategy, and will win praise from the fiscally conservative, pragmatic independent swing voters who decide U.S. Senate elections.

But you will forgive me for playing the political chessboard. It is something we old-fashioned, low-tax Democrats like do.