A prominent conservative activist recently forwarded to me a copy of Jerry Kilgore's plan to solve Virginia's transportation problems. (Kilgore, for readers outside Virginia, is the former state Attorney General seeking to win the Republican Party's nomination for governor this year. His opponent is Warrenton Mayor George Fitch.)
The activist's accompanying comment was telling, but too kind:
Regional transportation authorities. What a pathetic idea. Who exactly are the policy geniuses around Kilgore who are coming up with this crap?Some explanation may be in order. Here is the section on "regional transportation authorities" from Kilgore's plan, quoted in full:
The Commonwealth has an obligation to provide for a statewide system of roads, including major highways and rural roads. Jerry Kilgore will empower citizens in metropolitan areas who have the most pressing challenges to establish Regional Transportation Authorities with policy, fiscal and operational control over their road networks. By bringing decision-making closer to the people who use the transportation system and working across local government lines, we can achieve greater efficiency and speed in delivering needed improvements. These authorities will have the power to issues bonds, hold referenda to involve taxpayers in certain financing decisions, sign private maintenance contracts, enter into public-private partnerships, and use other financing mechanisms to fund new road, bridge and mass transit projects over and above existing funding from the state.
Hidden in this wonkish gobbledygook is Jerry Kilgore's secret plan to raise taxes.
He'll deny it, of course. But look at the language of his proposal. He wants to set up unelected bodies, unanswerable to any voters, with regional authority to "issue bonds," hold referenda on "certain financing decisions," and "use other financing mechanisms" to fund transport projects.
"Other financing mechanisms"? My optimistic side says this is a code word for toll roads, which I support wholeheartedly as a way to make users pay for the services they use. As Michael W. Thompson of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy has noted, "Tolls are user fees and not taxes."
The pessimist in me, however, says that "other financing mechanisms" can be nothing else but taxes, taken from the earnings of Virginia workers.
If Jerry Kilgore wants to pick our pockets, he should at least have the courtesy of telling us outright, rather than obfuscating his plans in the arcane jargon of centralizing urban planners and watermelon smart-growth advocates.
Is regional coordination on transportation issues a good idea? Of course it is. It makes a lot of sense. But it is not a good idea to set up unelected bodies with the authority to issue bonds or raise taxes. In Virginia, even elected school boards lack taxing authority -- not to mention those few unelected school boards in such retrograde jurisdictions as Charlottesville. School division budgets must be approved by city councils or boards of supervisors, who are accountable and answerable to voters on tax and budget matters.
To paraphrase William F. Buckley, Jr., when it comes to Virginia transportation policy: Coordination, sí; magistra, no.