By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA—It’s time for Virginia’s attorney general-turned gubernatorial candidate to nail down his tax policy plans, a few state tea party leaders say.
Hours before Ken Cuccinelli took the coveted first-speaker slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, D.C., word broke that he isn’t re-signing a pledge to refrain from tax increases. And for tea partyers, many of whom Cuccinelli is banking on to win come November, that is cause for concern.
“We’re all so jaded by politicians that you could make a case, in a tax reform kind of situation, where some taxes might go up, but the overall taxes might go down,” said Chip Tarbutton, president of the Roanoke Tea Party. “That is conceivable that it could happen. But that’s generally not what people do. So anytime somebody is unwilling to sign a no-tax pledge, it does make me a little queasy.”
The pledge could be a good thing for Cuccinelli.
“There’s this impulse, I think, to say that signing a pledge boxes in a politician, but I think that the opposite is true,” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president at the Alexandria-based National Taxp
John Jaggers, operations director for the Northern Virginia Tea Party, said Cuccinelli is going in the wrong direction — especially after Republicans voted for tax increases in the General Assembly’s 2013 legislative session with a controversial transportation bill.
“My initial reaction is that, given what the General Assembly just did, not only should Ken Cuccinelli sign the tax pledge, but he should offer to cut taxes in his administration, should he win,” Jaggers said.
Cuccinelli has signed Americans for Tax Reform’s famous no-tax-increase pledge in the past. But his decision to not re-sign it comes as a slap in the face to ATR President Grover Norquist, who has publicly praised Cuccinelli for his opposition to the tax-increasing Virginia transportation plan supported by both Gov. Bob McDonnell and his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe.
“I applaud Ken Cuccinelli for opposing what he rightly describes as a ‘massive tax increase,’” Norquist said last month in a statement that supported Cuccinelli and criticized McAuliffe.
Norquist was quick to respond to Cuccinelli’s seeming slight, saying Virginia voters have already been fooled once by McDonnell, who refused to sign the pledge, and subsequently, raised taxes.
“The sitting governor ran for office saying ‘I’ll never ran taxes’ verbally but won’t put it in writing,” Norquist told Newsmax TV at CPAC.
That’s perhaps eerily similar to what Cuccinelli’s campaign said.
“Ken Cuccinelli agrees with the principles of Americans for Tax Reform and keeping taxes low,” Jahan Wilcox, communications director for the Cuccinelli campaign, told Politico. “However, it’s our policy to not sign campaign pledges.”
But Keith Freeman, chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, said Cuccinelli’s decision to not re-sign could be right in line with his plans to reform the tax code.
“I personally think it’s courageous for him to stand up and say, ‘I’m not signing these pledges’,” Freeman said. “First of all, they’re unenforceable. So say what you like. But [he’s saying] I’m just not going to be trapped into something that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t allow the flexibility required sometimes to reform the tax code, for instance.”
Freeman called Norquist’s pledge too narrow.
“Norquist’s pledge in a nutshell, is, if revenue to the government increases, it’s considered a tax increase,” Freeman said. “And so if you sign it, you’re prohibited from doing anything to create that situation.”
If I lowered your rate, and everybody else in your marginal rate, and revenue to the government increased, that would be considered a tax increase. Now tell me how that makes any sense.”
Elizabeth Malm, economist with the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax policy organization, said it all depends on how you define “simplification.” It’s possible to reform the tax code by broadening the base of those who pay — which would of course raise taxes on some — and lowering rates, without really changing the overall revenue the state collects, she said.
“An ideal tax code doesn’t favor certain industries or activities, but treats everyone equally,” Malm said in an email. “If bases are broad, it is still possible to raise adequate and stable revenues while simultaneously keeping rates at a low level.”
Pledge or no pledge, Cuccinelli needs to hammer out the specifics of what simplifying the tax code actually means, Tarbutton said.
“If he’s really talking about some kind of substantial tax reform, he would need to kind of lay that out,” Tarbutton said. “What exactly does that look like?”
Email Kathryn Watson at [email protected].