- Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 December 2008 19:41
- Published on Wednesday, 24 December 2008 19:41
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Not too long ago I was saying that the Democrats would be hard pressed to find a “wedge” issue to propel them to victory in 2009. In 2007 they had that issue when it came to transportation and it carried them a long ways. The Republicans lost their majority in the state senate and the Democrats increased their number in the House of Delegates to 45. That was impressive. However, this year seemed a bit more problematic.
Now that we’re in a recession, transportation, while important, just isn’t as important an issue as it was two years ago. However, maintaining key state services in the face of declining revenue is. That seemed to be setting the stage for an election where the Republicans could run the kind of campaign they’re good at. Namely, cutting spending, pruning back government, and opposing any new taxes. That would have given them the leverage, perhaps, to break the Democratic winning streak and at the very least hang on to their majority in the House of Delegates.
However, that was until Governor Kaine threw them a curve. Now, once again, they’re off balance.
Kaine, as the state’s chief executive, is looking to plug a $2.9 billion shortfall in the state’s budget. Because of the recession, the state’s revenue picture is grim. Kaine’s problem is in how to fill that gap. He is cutting departmental budgets, canceling projects, and at the same time looking for some effective ways to make up lost revenue. That’s where his proposed increase in the tobacco tax comes in.
Thirty years ago Virginia was heavily dependent on tobacco as one of its principal industries. In those days an increase in the tax on the tobacco would have been politically unthinkable. No Governor, and very few in the legislature, would have dared propose such a thing. But times have changed.
Besides, it’s been argued, the state’s tax on tobacco is the 47th lowest in the nation. That’s why there is such a vibrant and illicit market in buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them in New York City. So, why shouldn’t the tax be raised?
The Republicans, probably with a little more vehemence than was advisable, immediately declared the Governor’s proposal dead on arrival. That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. From a political perspective, the wisest thing to have done would have been to taken a deep breath before they said anything.
But, they didn’t.
They have a majority of the House of Delegates and if they want can easily derail it. However, they should have realized that Tim Kaine knows that too. In fact, many think he is counting on it. More than likely this tax proposal will get the axe. The GOP just won’t stand for it. They have declared it a “job killer,” though this argument is somewhat weak, and want nothing to do with it.
However, they seem to be missing the point.
Kaine, in proposing this tax, may have given the Democrats that wedge issue they need for November. If the GOP dominated House kills the cigarette tax the only option the Governor will have is to make further cuts in key services. This will include, at the very least, education and Medicaid. Most people, given a choice between the tax on cigarettes and help for the elderly or aid to their local school system usually find that decision easy to make.
That’s certainly what Kaine and the Democrats fighting to take over the legislature will be telling the voters next fall. Also, and the Republicans should have taken note of this, the key swing districts, the ones the Democrats need to win in November, aren’t in areas dominated by tobacco interests.
The same is true for the regions they need to win if they want to capture the Governor’s mansion. Northern Virginia voters and those in the outer rung of the D.C. suburbs and indeed, in a number of other regions throughout the state, may not react too well if they are told that key services are being cut because the General Assembly wasn’t willing to raise the tax on cigarettes.
Kaine would dearly love to have the additional revenue of a tobacco tax. It would help him deal with a serious budgetary shortfall. But if he doesn’t get it, he is ready, and probably chomping at the bit, to use it as a wedge issue next fall.