Journalistic Malpractice — or One More Back-Pedaling Politician?

Last month, Virginian-Pilot reporter Tom Holden created quite a stir when he quoted Del. John Welch III, R-Virginia Beach, as saying he now supports a general tax increase to fund transportation improvements. Wrote Holden:

Del. John Welch III, one of the General Assembly’s most ardent anti-tax champions, said Thursday he supports a 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase to help pay for Virginia transportation projects.

Welch, who like all state lawmakers is up for election in November 2007, said he changed his mind after voters repeatedly told him on Election Day that they were fed up with the stalemate in Richmond.

“I worked the polls for 13 hours… and people told me they want something done,” he said. “They don’t like taxes but they want action. I will entertain fees or gas tax increases for the good of Virginia.”

Welch’s about-face was widely touted by the Axis of Taxes as evidence that the once-solid ranks of the low-tax wing of the House of Delegates was cracking. But now comes Leesburg Today with an article exploring the prospects for a compromise on the transportation-funding issue. One of the conservatives who supposedly has “turned the corner” on taxes, writes Dusty Smith, rejects the notion:

“It has seriously been mischaracterized,” said Robert Rummells, chief of staff for Del. John J. Welch III (R-21), referring to news reports that Welch would sponsor a bill to raise the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon and dedicate it to transportation needs. “It couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Rummells said Welch was asked his opinion about a proposal to raise the gas tax by 30 cents, which he flat out rejected. He responded by saying he could entertain the idea of raising the tax by 10 cents, but only if the General Assembly and voters approve a constitutional amendment that would prevent the Transportation Trust Fund from being used for any non-transportation item. A constitutional amendment requires approval by two successive legislatures and a statewide referendum, meaning the earliest it could be in place would be November 2008, if it took effect immediately after the referendum.

“The most Welch would even consider is a dime,” Rummells said, adding that without the constitutional amendment, there’s not a chance of Welch voting for that tax hike. “If there’s no lockbox, there’s no dime.”

Several legislators touted Welch’s words in his hometown newspapers as evidence conservative Republicans were swayed when voters in the recent elections chose to send Democrats to several statewide positions who identify transportation as their biggest concern. However, Rummells’ comments suggest otherwise. Welch does plan to sponsor a constitutional amendment to lock up the Transportation Trust Fund, Rummells said.

Whom do we believe? The popular inclination is to trust Holden, a veteran journalist, over some mealy-mouthed spokesman for a politician who wouldn’t even speak for himself. On the other, in my observation, the overall journalistic coverage of the transportation debate (I’m not referring to Holden specifically) has been so shoddy as to border on journalistic malpractice. It is obvious to me, if to no one else, that many journalists covering the transportation debate are captive to blatant prejudices and preconceptions.

Rummell has flat-out contested the accuracy of the Virginian-Pilot story, suggesting that Welch’s comments were taken grotesquely out of context. The core tenets of journalism require that the Pilot follow up, report honestly on the extent to which it quoted Welch fairly or unfairly, and clarify/update his position on taxes. It will be interesting to see if the Pilot does so. Failure to do so will smack of cover-up and create a presumption of guilt.

Crow-Eating Update: I owe Tom Holden and the Virginian-Pilot an apology for insinuating that they even might have done anything wrong on this story. After writing this blog entry, I suggested that J.R. Hoeft over at Bearing Drift follow up on this story, which was in his back yard. He found it of interest, raising essentially the same questions that I did. (See his post.) However, Hampton Roads blogger Vivian Paige noted in the comments of J.R.’s blog that she’d noted the Welch story in her own blog back in December. She’d noted the delegate’s constitutional-amendment qualifier back then, so what was the fuss about?

Worried that I had missed something, I went back to Holden’s original story — and there it was: “Welch backs the increase on the condition that lawmakers also pass a constitutional amendment limiting access to the transportation trust fund.” I had overlooked it. Totally my fault. Let me reiterate: Holden presented Welch’s comments fairly and in context. The Pilot owes no one an apology and has no obligation to follow up.

Unless he was quoted out of context by Leesburg Today, however, Rummell has some explaining to do. Just how, exactly, did the news media mischaracterize Welch’s comments? Was he back-pedaling because Welch had caught some heat for his comments?

Finally, I have some self-examination to do. If I had read Holden’s article more carefully, I would not have needed to ask whether the Pilot or Rummell was the credible party. The answer would have been apparent. All I can say in my defense is that I pursued the truth of the matter and reported it as soon as I discovered it.

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6 responses to “Journalistic Malpractice — or One More Back-Pedaling Politician?”

  1. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    I am a friend of Doc Welch’s – I asked about all this when the news hit the Pilot. What Del. Welch’s staff stated is true – his support was clearly stated that he’d support an 10-cent gas hike on the condition that a Constitutional Amendment is passed to protect the gas tax funs placed in the TTF.

    The Governors and GA have a long history of “borrowing” transportaion funds – and claiming to “pay them back” using I.O.Us called FRANS.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ten cents gets about 500 million a year I believe.

    If it is done instead of what Kaine is proposing for tax increases … BUT includes 1/2 of annual surplus then you’ve got close to your Billion – except that.. Kaine’s budget showed about 350 million to go for expected increases in Maintenance costs.

    POLLs show 22% – overall support tax increases for transporation.

    I wonder if that number would be the same, higher, or lower in NoVa/HR?

    One would think if those areas are purple… trending blue – they might.

    On the other hand – both groups dumped the 2002 referenda… which was for a sales tax increase for transporation.

    So – the question is… would a NoVa/HD incumbent (either party) get tossed for supporting a 10 cent increase?

    what are the odds?

  3. Vivian J. Paige Avatar
    Vivian J. Paige

    I’m confused. When I read the Virginian-Pilot article, I thought it was clear that he would support 10 cents only on the condition of a constitutional amendment for a transportation trust fund. I said so at the time. What am I missing?

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Well, look on the bright side.

    In England, and in Portugal, the tax on a litre of gas is roughly the same as the price of the gas.

    Here we are, arguing over a dime.

    On the other hand, roads in England and Portugal still are no where near as nice as our worst roads.

    I suppose that Larry and others have a point when they say higher taxes is no guarantee of service, but neither are tolls apparently.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Vivian, You aren’t missing anything. I missed something. I won’t repeat my crow-eating update here because I appended it to the original post where everyone can see it.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: merits of raising the gas tax.

    .. I separate … what is feasible with what “makes sense”.

    If it is politically feasible to raise the gas tax (and it might be) – then no matter what any of us say – I strongly suspect – it’s the most direct path to more money….

    easier than “tax the guy behind the tree” schemes, easier than TOLLs and certainly easier than GPS metering, et al.

    but over the longer run – .. whether it is 5, 10 or 15 years – the idea of viewing the gas tax as a SUSTAINABLE source of revenues is… problematic and the real issue is… do we just stumble along… until proof positive appears on the horizon and THEN react?

    I’m not saying KILL the gas tax.

    I’m saying… it has a limited future and if we are talking about significant money for transportation – it’s not very likely to come from the gas tax for more than a few years – the “few” being decided by how soon Hybrid Battery Technology (and other technologies) take to further develop.

    Right now – this year – there is a 350 million dollar liability for road maintenance.

    That money is going to come off the top of any one billion dollar new infusion.

    AND … since we are ADDING 400 lane miles a year to be maintained…

    that 350 million deficit .. is NOT going to get smaller… it’s going to get a lot bigger…

    meaning.. even a 10cent gasoline tax .. is going to essentially be eaten alive in 5 years….

    so back to the front.

    what is “feasible” and what is… for want of a better word “sustainable”?

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