Claiming the populist niche in the contest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Corey Stewart has given away a semi-automatic rifle as part of a fund-raising effort, defended monuments of Confederate generals, and bashed Dominion Energy for its coal-ash disposal plans. Now he’s added to his rabble-rousing resume by promising voters to meet Virginia’s transportation needs without raising taxes or imposing new tolls.
“We obviously have transportation needs, and the way we’re going to fund those is by finding efficiencies within existing spending in Virginia. No new tolls; no new taxes. That’s what I’m pledging,” Stewart said yesterday in a Virginia Beach news conference.
Where would the money come from to pay for projects such as two more lanes for the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, costing an estimated $3 billion? Reports the Virginian-Pilot:
Stewart said he would eliminate the need for new tolls by slashing $2.2 billion from the state budget, which is about $104 billion over two years, and redirecting it toward transportation.
Under Stewart’s plan, the $2.2 billion in redirected spending would come in his second year in office. He’s proposing that on the heels of another plan calling for cutting another $2.2 billion in spending in his first year so the state could reduce the income tax rate most people pay from 5.75 percent to 4.75 percent.
Stewart did not specify what would be cut from the budget under his proposals, but said “there are billions of dollars worth of savings out of the state’s annual $52 billion budget that can be found.”
Bacon’s bottom line: This is magical thinking, and it’s wrong in oh so many ways.
First, it is a fantasy to think that billions of dollars of “inefficiencies” can be squeezed out of the existing state budget by going through by line item by line item — the only way to achieve savings under the current paradigm of government. Medicaid, a federally mandated programs, continues to grow at the expense of other programs. (Virginia, by the way, already operates one of the leanest Medicaid programs in the country.) The state is under-funding its K-12 schools based on Standards of Quality, and it has chopped per-student support to higher education. Virginia has huge unmet needs for mental health and substance abuse. It has massive unfunded pension liabilities. The list could go on and on. Anyone who thinks they can cut the income tax rate at a revenue cost of $2.2 billion and then find another $2.2 billion laying around to be reallocated to transportation is deluded.
Second, Stewart is misguided in his no-new-tolls stance. But at least he has a rationale. Quoth the Pilot:
What makes this tolling plan so absolutely heinous is that taxpayers have already paid for these roads. It’s absolutely wrong. It’s absolutely wrong to tax citizens twice for the same road. You need a third crossing, we need a third crossing here in Hampton Roads, but that project is really a state project. It should not be borne upon the citizens of Hampton Roads to pay for a project that is really meant for the Port of Virginia, which is owned by the entire state.
I would agree, it is wrong to “tax” (or toll) citizens twice for the same road. But doubling the capacity of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel would not be tolling the “same road.” Most likely the new tunnel would be set up as HOT lanes, in which motorists would continue to use the original tunnel for free but would pay a premium to use the new tunnel as a way to bypass congestion. No one would be compelled to use the new tunnel; no one would be forced to pay the toll. But everyday motorists would benefit to the extent that the tolled road diverted some traffic from the untolled road.
I also would agree that it is reasonable to ask the Port of Virginia to help pay for transportation improvements that give tractor-trailers better access to inland markets. But the most logical way to collect money from port-related activity is for time-sensitive tractor-trailers to pay tolls to avoid congestion!
Corey Stewart reflects the id of the Virginia psyche in which everyone wants transportation improvements but they want someone else to pay for them. Stewart is promising to find “someone else” to pay. Thus, roads and highways effectively become free goods — free to the motorist, not the taxpayer. In other words, Stewart is a transportation socialist. The Bernie Sanders crowd might be OK with that. But I can’t imagine the gambit will take Stewart far with the Republican Party.