A leadership gap in Richmond

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Virginia Senate on Friday passed a budget that goes a long way toward addressing some of the state’s dire financial needs, but at the same time imposes some hardship on residents in the form of increased taxes.

It sensibly raises the per pack tax on cigarettes from the ridiculous 2.5 cents to 35 cents. Income taxes are raised slightly on the state’s wealthiest, but as if they panicked and feared people might accuse them of being reasonable, they turned around and included in the proposal a 22 percent increase in the state sales tax which is the most regressive of taxes and inordinately punishes those who can least afford it.

But what appears to have been a moment of sheer madness, Senators approved a $120 million tax break for cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, ostensibly to facilitate the shipment of its deadly product overseas.

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The sad part is that as bad as the Senate plan is, it’s likely to be much better than the plan that will come out of the House of Delegates which, reportedly, will allow on the elimination of tax loopholes for corporations to increase state revenues. While that’s certainly a sensible move – corporations have for far too long been given a ride on the back of the taxpayers, the House has no intention of doing anything to fix the state’s long-term financial prospects.

It’s likely that the budget that emerges, if indeed on does, will include parts of each plan, but it’s a good bet that it will fall short of doing what is necessary to address education and infrastructure needs that threaten the quality of life Virginians have come to enjoy and expect – and that’s what should be of utmost concern to lawmakers.

Giving tax breaks to Philip Morris won’t help the economy if the company can’t find well-educated and trained workers. And lawmakers need to take Sen. John Warner’s warning of last week to heart: that if something is not done to address education and roads, the military will likely take a hard look at Virginia during the next round of base closings, which impacts every part of Virginia, particularly Hampton Roads.

It’s time for responsible elected officials to step forward and be more politicians, to lead. It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see if anyone in Richmond accepts the challenge and puts the public good ahead of ideology.