Virginia GOP's Tobacco Love Affair
This time, it's going to be different, promises Bob McDonnell, Virginia's attorney general and the Republican candidate for governor in the 2009 race. The commonwealth's Republicans, chastened by successive defeats and a growing sense that Virginia is becoming at least a purple state if not quite relatively secure territory for Democrats, are no longer willing to cede northern Virginia to the other party, no longer willing to allow themselves to be painted as the party of harshly conservative positions on social issues.
That's the message McDonnell is pushing in his campaign visits to the region where he grew up. Although the attorney general has spent most of his adult life in the Hampton Roads area, he is a native of Fairfax County and knows the area well. One thing he says he gets is that many of the relative newcomers to Virginia who live in the Washington suburbs don't want state government to get hung up on questions of gays, guns and God--the hot-button issues that Republicans have long used to rally their conservative base.
But just how willing is McDonnell to break with Republican orthodoxies?
Last week's proposal by Gov. Tim Kaine to address the state's frightening budget gap by proposing to double the tax on cigarettes from 30 cents a pack to 60 cents is a fine opportunity to test McDonnell's readiness to stake out a different path.
So far, he's flunking.
Such an increase "would potentially threaten" Virginia's tobacco industry, McDonnell says, slamming the Kaine proposal as a tax hike at a time when economic conditions don't support any tax increases.
There are indeed Republicans who see the current economic crisis as a moment to put reflexive and parochial political positions aside and seek consensus. Former state Sen. John Chichester from the Fredericksburg area laid out that vision in a recent speech that has many in his party wondering how they can effectively stand up for their principles while cooperating with the governor and other Democrats.
But McDonnell, House Speaker William Howell and other GOP leaders are instead clinging to their tobacco gravy train for dear life.
Why would they do such a thing when public opinion appears to be squarely on the side of cranking up the tobacco tax?
Let's look at the numbers: Altria, the silly name that the Philip Morris corporation has adopted to try to distance itself from its cigarette business, has given McDonnell the largest gift of any it has given any Virginia politician, $15,000 already in this young gubernatorial campaign. (Two of the three Democratic candidates, Brian Moran and Sen. Creigh Deeds, have each received $5,000 from Altria this year.) The cigarette maker has given $93,000 to Republican candidates this year and $65,000 to Democrats.
Republicans argue that picking on the tobacco industry could upset those companies and cause them to pick up and leave the state, leaving hundreds of Virginians jobless. It's a ludicrous argument, especially considering that Altria just got here, having moved its headquarters from New York City to Richmond just last year.
Even the tobacco industry doesn't make that argument, choosing instead to oppose a tax increase as an unfair focus on one industry.
Virginia's tobacco tax is one of the lowest in the nation. Maryland charges $2 a pack and the District's tax is $1 a pack; only deep South states and Missouri are down with Virginia in the sub-50-cents per pack tax range.
Virginia will make severe and very noticeable budget cuts next month; of that, there can be no doubt. And there's little appetite for general tax increases in any political party. But states are searching for relatively harmless ways to bring in at least a little new revenue. Hitting those whose addiction saddles taxpayers with huge medical bills is a helpful way to try to take some of the edge off the service cuts to come.
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