now almost all Virginians pay a personal property
levy on their cars, despite GOP Governor Jim
Gilmore's 1997 campaign promise to end the car tax
for most people.
observers and GOP politicians blame this failure on
what they describe as an "unexpected"
budget crisis. But the fiscal truth is this: There
would be plenty of money to eliminate the car tax
for a majority of Virginians if Mr. Gilmore had
simply kept his campaign promise when the car tax
in 1998, during his first General Assembly Session.
The GOP Governor and his party -- with my own
Democrats as usual going along like sheep --
double-crossed the voters by passing a car tax
repeal plan that was fundamentally different from
the one promised during the campaign. Indeed, if
my own Democrats and fiscally responsible
Republicans had only listened to those of us urging
Gilmore to honor his original campaign promise --
not their bait-and-switch approach to
be discussed below -- the current state
budget would have enough money not only to eliminate
the car tax for most Virginians but hundreds of
millions of dollars to spare to improve education,
ameliorate mental health services, and help the
private sector create jobs.
So I say again, the so-called "unexpected"
budget "crisis" is not the reason
most Virginians still pay a car tax. The car tax
could be eliminated for most Virginians right now
with the money already available in the state
budget. This would not require any
"borrowing" against tobacco settlement
revenues, any "raiding" of the VRS funds,
or any more of the "three card Monte"
fiscal tricks that are again in vogue in Richmond in
Bottom line: The politicians in
Richmond blame their inability to eliminate your car
tax on the "budget crisis" in order to
distract from the double-cross they pulled on you,
the voters, in 1998. Like a bunch of used-car
hucksters, they played bait-and-switch. They caved
under political pressure from powerbrokers who
forced a change in the car tax elimination formula
to benefit their areas at the expense of other parts
of the state.
Indeed, this bait-and-switch is one reason Mr.
Gilmore got away with unprecedented fiscal
recklessness during the 2001 General Assembly
Session. Why? Simple political math. Under the
original Gilmore campaign promise, more than half
the voters -- and an even higher percentage in some
parts of the state -- would be paying pay no car tax
Thus, all these voters would not be pressuring
legislators to cut the car tax further because they
would receive no benefit! Accordingly, the
General Assembly would not have rolled over when
Gilmore broke state law and his promise to them by
illegally raising the car tax repeal to its current
70 percent phase-out level. This action, discussed
by me in a Washington Post article two years
ago, has added a billion dollars -- and counting --
to the state's budget deficit.
In my view, the car tax should be eliminated. But as
a commentator, I have to write honest analysis. This
means pointing out that Gilmore "cooked"
the state revenue forecast in December of 2000 to
take an advantage of a loophole in the car tax law
to force the 2001 budget stalemate, allowing him to
raise the phase-out level to 70 percent when
everyone in Richmond knew the true state
revenue forecast made raising the phase-out level
If his original campaign promise had been enacted,
Gilmore never could have gotten away with this
maneuver because it would only have benefited a
small percentage of voters. However, under the car
tax law passed in 1998, almost all voters received
some additional benefit from his illegal action thus
cowering most legislators to stay quiet.
So, for those who want to know the true story of
this GOP bait-and-switch, the following, as Paul
Harvey might say, is the rest of the story.
Under the plan promised in 1997 by candidate
Gilmore, the car tax would be eliminated on the
first $20,000 in assessed valuation. This
"elimination" was to be phased-in over
five years by exempting an increasing fixed-dollar
amount of the assessed value of the car up to the
promised $20,000. Thus, the value of your
car, not the amount of your tax bill, was
going to be the basis of car tax relief.
Based on the GOP campaign promise, there is enough
money in the 2003 state budget to totally eliminate
the car tax for a clear majority of all Virginians
based on the average value of the vehicles owned by
state residents. Thus, most Virginians should now be
paying no car tax.
However, this campaign promise later proved to be
unacceptable to key Republicans - and probably key
Democrats - from certain vote-rich areas of the
Commonwealth. Naturally, there are no fingerprints,
and, I must further state that when I asked a key
member of the Gilmore Administration about this
bait-and-switch, he denied it was due to any
political deal, saying in effect it just
"worked out that way" to paraphrase the
But I am not buying this denial because as we say in
the South, if it quacks like a duck and walks like a
duck, then it's a duck.
So let's cut to the duck walk right now. In Fairfax
County, for example, there are a lot of key, swing
Republican votes owning one, two or more cars valued
at $20,000 and higher. Look what happens to an area
like Fairfax County under the original Gilmore plan.
Since the average value of cars there is far higher
than the average value of cars in many other parts
of the state, the original Gilmore plan meant that,
as the phase-out progressed, most Fairfax
County voters still would be paying a burdensome car
tax while, at the same time, the state would be
paying money to other localities to totally
eliminate the car tax for more and more, indeed
most, of the residents of these counties.
Everything I know about politics tells me this: When
this reality became clear to the politicians working
in 1998 to put Gilmore's campaign promise into law,
this situation was seen as a potential political
problem in places like Fairfax County. The
politicians could hear the voters asking: Why are my
state taxes going to a phase-out plan that will totally
eliminate the car tax for most voters in one area of
the state while my neighbors and I still will
be stuck with a hefty car tax?
So, while my Gilmore Administration biggie says the
change was not politically motivated, look what just
"happens to happen" due to the bait and
switch: Now, under the plan passed in 1998, Fairfax
County voters get the same 70 percent reduction
in their bill as the voters in all the other
But more important, the 70 percent reduction is
worth far more to the Fairfax voters and those
similarly situated than the voters in say the
Western part of the state.
Coincidence? If you think this "just
happened," then I have some land in Arizona to
sell you which would be just perfect for your
additional purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Let me make the math even clear. Had the original
Gilmore car tax -- the one promised in the campaign
-- been enacted, the owner of a car with an assessed
of $10,000 or less would now be paying no car tax
at all; the owner of a SUV valued at $20,000
would be paying roughly 50 percent of his car tax
under the bait-and-switch plan passed in 1998, the
SUV family pays considerably less in car tax
while the average Virginia family pays 30 percent
more than they would have under the original plan.
The result: Here we are in 2003, and not only have
the Republicans in the majority reneged on their
promises, but they say there is no money to keep the
state's promises in education, mental health, job
creation and other areas. Yet, they have been able
to find the money to continue to pay their record
high per-diem "compensation" and another
several million dollars a year in alleged
"reimbursable expenses" that they refuse
It is time to stop this "more for the
politicians and less for the people" motto
dominating the General Assembly. The
Bait-and-Switch, "Give-me-mine first" Big
Spending professional politicians are back, only
this time they are the Republicans in control of the
This is one reason I believe we need a "Put
K-12 education first" law enacted during the
2003 Session, to make sure the General Assembly
lives up to the state's promises on education. Based
on a February, 2002, report of the Joint Legislative
and Audit Review Committee, the General Assembly's
most important investigative body, the state is
reneging on its promise to help alleviate the burden
of local school taxes by $1 billion dollars a budget
How? Shortchanging the localities to the tune of $1
billion dollars in promised state support causes
property taxes to be a billion dollars higher than
it might otherwise have to be.
"Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice
shame on me" is an old adage we all know from
our grade school days. The GOP fooled us once with a
bait-and-switch on their car tax pledge. So let's
not let them fool us twice with their reneging on
the state's educational promise, voted into law by a
referendum of Virginia voters in the 1970s.
Thus, my "Put K-12 education first" law
will make sure future governors and future General
Assemblies don't "Gilmore us" again.
-- January 13, 2003
(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman.