Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Your Taxes & Pet Projects: So what constitutes "necessary"?

Whitney Duff has been working tirelessly traveling around Virginia educating taxpayers about the wasteful ways their tax money has been spent on pet projects that, while many are nice to have, are not necessary in this time when there have been proposals to raise taxes again. In her guest column that appeared this week in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she expounds on that theme.

Pet Projects: So, What Constitutes 'Necessary'?
By Whitney Duff, Times-Dispatch Guest Columnist
Feb 11, 2007

Virginia's Constitution stipulates that "No other or greater amount of tax or revenues shall, at any time, be levied than may be required for the necessary expenses of the government, or to pay the indebtedness of the Commonwealth."

Looking at the growth of the state's budget from $35 billion just over a decade ago to over $74 billion today, one has to wonder if anyone knows exactly what makes up the "necessary expenses of the government." Perhaps no one really cares. Government spends the money it collects, without any obligation to prove the spending is "necessary," a term Merriam-Webster defines as "absolutely needed."

The exploding growth of the budget and the continued spending of hard-earned tax dollars to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in pet projects, make it apparent that some Virginia lawmakers must define "necessary" a bit more loosely. Their generous laundry list of requests for non-state agencies which, by definition, are not core services of government, hence their non-governmental status -- may leave one scratching one's head asking just how these pet projects qualify as "necessary."

The Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, Barns of Rose Hill, Historic Pocahontas, Inc., Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, Loudoun Archaeological Foundation, Louisa Historical Society, Newsome House Museum -- these are just a few of the projects lawmakers have sought to fund with our tax dollars. Then there's the Virginia Museum of Transportation (ironic, perhaps in light of the ongoing transportation debate, but necessary?).

WHILE EACH of these projects likely does have some merit and a handful of faithful supporters, do any of them really meet the definition of "necessary expenses of the government"?

Supporters will argue about their benefits for tourism or job creation -- and those are certainly laudable additions to our Commonwealth and communities -- but at what cost: $2 million for the Arlington Signature Theatre? $1.75 million for Wolf Trap? $5 million for the Western Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Sciences?

Can our tax dollars subsidize every well-intentioned idea?

Sen. Mark Obenshain put it well recently, noting these projects "are worthy of private support from private donors, but not from taxpayer pockets."

The English philosopher John Locke and others rightly observed that the purpose of government must be to provide for the common security and for those projects individuals alone cannot fund. Surely, transportation problems that affect millions of the Commonwealth's citizens every day deserve more of legislators' attention and should win against parochial pet projects in the competition for taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.

Transportation is the issue that kept lawmakers in an extended session last year and remains the key topic in this year's session. Congestion and safety issues on Virginia's roadways, especially in the high-growth areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, do deserve lawmakers' attention and commitment to substantive and meaningful solutions. Yet, some of those same lawmakers who seek to once again raise our taxes in the name of transportation solutions are the same ones making hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of requests for pork-barrel earmarks from the general fund.

THIS YEAR alone, state senators requested a total of $113 million in general-fund dollars for pet projects, while delegates requested another $135.1 million. It is ironic that many of these legislators, especially in the Senate, are now criticizing those who would instead choose to invest general-fund revenue in projects to address statewide transportation needs.

Governing well requires establishing priorities, particularly when it comes to spending tax dollars. The bedrock principle of budgeting is the necessity to make tough choices about how dollars -- our tax dollars in this case -- would be most effectively and efficiently spent.

"Necessary expenses of the government" is not a guideline; it's a constitutional requirement.

Virginia's taxpayers expect their representatives to respect the money they are sending to Richmond. Americans for Prosperity is committed to making sure our lawmakers see the light and work to restore taxpayers' trust in their government by spending our tax dollars more as they would spend their own money.

Whitney Duff is the director of the Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

H/T to From On High

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