Joe McNamara

A half century or so ago, the thing that Del. Joe McNamara is trying to do was considered dangerously radical, the platform of a wild-eyed liberal. 

Now it’s considered an article of faith among many conservatives. 

Funny how things change, isn’t it? 

The Roanoke County Republican – a mild-mannered accountant who also sells ice cream, the ultimate comfort food, at two popular establishments – seems an unlikely successor to Virginia’s great liberal populist Henry Howell, who scared the bejeebers out of conservatives for the better part of two decades. Yet here we are: McNamara is trying to enact a key plank of Howell’s agenda and today’s conservatives are rallying behind him, while some of today’s liberals are as skeptical as conservatives were back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

I refer, of course, to the repeal of the state’s 2.5% tax on “food purchased for human consumption and essential personal hygiene products” – or, as, it’s usually called, “the food tax” or “the grocery tax.” 

The repeal of this tax was one of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s main talking points during the gubernatorial campaign last fall – perhaps lost beneath all the hub-bub over mask mandates and critical race theory – but there nonetheless. Now McNamara is one of the legislators sponsoring the legislation in the General Assembly – and the only one whose bill actually matches what Youngkin promised, a complete repeal. As the legislature passed its midpoint this week, McNamara’s bill repealing the food tax has cleared the House on an 80-20 vote. A Senate version, sponsored by a Democrat – Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax County, passed 37-3 but it would eliminate only part of the tax, retaining the 1% that goes to local governments. In the coming weeks, the legislature will have to work out those differences, although McNamara says he’s hopeful, maybe a little more than hopeful, his version will prevail. 

“I’m confident,” he told me during an interview this week. “I have every belief that when the dust settles there is no more grocery tax and localities are kept 100 percent whole.” (McNamara has a soft spot for local governments: He was elected four times to the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors before he ran for the House of Delegates in a special election in 2018. It was hisconcern about local government that led McNamara to voice unease about fellow Republican Wren Williams’ bill to require local governments to appoint an independent panel of experts to decide the fate of Confederate monuments and other war memorials. “I have a real concern with a committee that is going to make a decision that a locality has to agree with, and four out of the six members of that committee are not elected officials,” McNamara said.) 

But back to the food tax: Historically speaking, the curious thing is not so much that McNamara has become the legislative point person for repeal but that conservatives in general have been. For the full context, we need to go back to 1966, when McNamara was just three years old and the world was a very different place. Virginia was starting to come out from under domination by the Byrd Machine – U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. had resigned for health reasons the year before – and a rapidly suburbanizing state was starting to demand services that the state had little money to pay for. There were baby boomers to be educated, a community college system to set up, polluted waters to clean up because people then had new-fangled ideas that perhaps localities shouldn’t be dumping raw sewage into rivers. But what politician would dare propose new taxes? One who didn’t have to seek re-election, that’s who. In his farewell message to the legislature in 1966, outgoing Gov. Albertis Harrison – a quiet son of the state’s conservative old order – endorsed a sales tax. Maybe two politicians who didn’t have to seek re-election. Incoming Gov. Mills Godwin – another son of that old order – took up the cause. He turned out to be wrong about not having to run again (more on that to come) but his term turned out to be one of the most consequential in Virginia history. The state got a sales tax, a community college system, and lots of other things. 

It also got a very voluble opponent to the part of the sales tax that applied to groceries. His name was Henry Howell – Howlin’ Henry some called him – and he was very much not a son of the old order. A Norfolk attorney, Howell had spent much of the ’50s and ’60s campaigning against the very fundamentals that kept the Byrd Machine in power. He railed against the poll tax, he opposed the state’s Massive Resistance to integration, he wanted to reform the State Corporation Commission, which he felt was in cahoots with the state’s major utility – Virginia Power, or Vepco for short, or, as he called it, “the Virginia Expensive Power Company.” (Today that’s Dominion Energy). Howell soon added the sales tax on food to his list. In 1969, Howell ran for the Democratic nomination for governor – with repeal of that tax as his “keystone proposal,” in the words of Encyclopedia Virginia. Howell’s objection: The food tax is a regressive tax. Everyone has to eat, so those who are the least affluent have to pay a bigger percentage of their wages for the food tax than do those who are most affluent. Howell put together a coalition that would be unthinkable today – urban liberals, Black voters and blue-collar rural voters who felt they were being left out of things. There just weren’t enough of them.

Howell lost that year but came back in 1973 – for the sake of brevity I’m skipping over the fascinating but tortured politics of that era that led to him running as an independent while Democrats were so befuddled they simply didn’t nominate a candidate. Howell was such a serious contender that the state’s conservative establishment prevailed upon the conservative Democrat Godwin to come out of retirement and run as a Republican as the only way to keep Howlin’ Henry from winning and completely upending everything. Now Howell had an even better argument: Not only was he against the sales tax on groceries, he got to run against the governor who had implemented it. 

We’re accustomed today to Republicans running as tax-cutters and accusing Democrats of being tax-raisers but in 1973 the poles were reversed (or maybe they’re reversed today). Then it was the liberal Howell who campaigned as the tax cutter and the conservative Godwin who had to defend it. Howell produced television commercials, considered clever for the time, in which a parade of shoppers complained that Godwin was “too taxing.” Howell seemed on his way to winning; polls showed him with a big lead. Then he made a classic mistake: He released a plan that showed how he would replace the revenue from the food tax he wanted to repeal. Howell proposed three new taxes – an increase in the tax on alcoholic beverages, a tax on professional services (such as the fees charged by lawyers and accountants) and a tax on corporate stock dividends. To Howell’s way of thinking, at least two of those three were more progressive taxes and while Meat Loaf’s career hadn’t started then, the Meat Loaf philosophy still applied: two out of three ain’t bad. Unfortunately for Howell, this gave Godwin the opportunity to charge that Howell wanted to impose a “tax on jobs” and that was that – Godwin won narrowly. 

The difference between Howell then and McNamara now: Howell wanted to replace that revenue. McNamara, being a good Republican who also believes Virginia is “too taxing,” does not. 

Over the years other Democrats talked up repealing the tax but never did and Democrat ardor for getting rid of it cooled. Then in 2021 Youngkin made it part of his platform. Democrats should perhaps go quietly reflect on how they let this issue slip from their grasp (along with all those rural voters who backed Howell; he carried every locality west of Wythe County, often by wide margins). Only 13 states impose a tax on groceries. “I’m not sure we want to be in that,” McNamara said. Here’s another curiosity: Nine of those are diehard Republican states, with Mississippi imposing the highest rate at 7%. Only two – Hawaii and Illinois – are deep blue states, the other two swing states. You’d think when Democrats had control of the General Assembly, they’d have jumped at the chance to disassociate themselves with all those Republican states imposing a regressive tax, but no.

Here’s one reason why many Democrats lost interest in repealing the grocery tax: Over the years, the tax’s revenue stream got tied to specific sources – with some revenue dedicated to transportation and some to local governments. That makes it harder to undo the tax because the question obviously comes up: How will you replace those funds? 

Howell’s answer back then was to impose other, more progressive, taxes. The Republican answer today: We don’t need to raise any other taxes because the state’s economy is booming and producing more revenue. (Yes, Youngkin said during the campaign that the state’s economy was “in the ditch” but apparently even an economy “in the ditch” is still throwing off lots of money.) 

And that’s how McNamara, the only Certified Public Accountant in the General Assembly, finds himself at the center of one of the biggest and most complicated issues before the legislature (cannabis regulation would be more complicated). “I spend most of my time on finance-related stuff,” he said. Most years that’s dreadfully dull for those of us who don’t like math. This year, not so much. 

“This particular session is different from most,” McNamara said. “We’re in a revenue position where there’s so much cash, it’s unprecedented. There’s talk that there will be a reforecast [in state revenues] coming out Sunday.” State revenues had been projected at $24 billion. In December, the forecast was upped to $26 billion. “You may be at 28, 28 and a half come Sunday,” McNamara said. Democrats often look at those revenues and think of all the unmet needs that they could fund. Republicans like McNamara see the world differently. “If we don’t return some of that to the private sector to make investments, I worry the public sector will crowd out the private sector,” McNamara said. This is one of the more essential differences between Democrats and Republicans. 

When McNamara said he spends most of his time on “finance-related stuff,” he’s not kidding. Of the 13 bills he’s introduced this year, 12 deal with taxes in some way, the 13th changes how the minimum wage is calculated. 

Some of those bills are small and technical (well, small to most of us, maybe not small to those involved with them) – such as his bill that would tax equipment at data centers “based on depreciated reproduction or replacement cost, rather than based on the amount of income they generate.” That bill was so uncontroversial it passed the House unanimously.

The food tax, though, is big and technical. So is his bill that would increase the standard deduction for state income tax filers from from $4,500 to $9,000 for single filers and from $9,000 to $18,000 for married filers (one-half of such amount in the case of a married individual filing a separate return). That bill is also much more controversial. While the food tax bill passed by a wide and generally bipartisan margin, the standard deduction bill passed on a party-line vote of 52-48. McNamara is hopeful that the budget reforecast expected Sunday (conveniently, the same day both chamber’s budget-writing committees release their budgets) will make it easier for the Senate to go along with his total repeal of the food tax. The standard deduction bill faces a more uncertain fate in the Senate – or perhaps a certain fate. Three similar measures, including one from state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, all failed to make it out of committee in the Senate and even some Republicans were among those voting to keep them there. 

McNamara is almost relentlessly upbeat – years of being a Cleveland Browns fan will either grind you down into eternal pessimism or instill you with the belief that better days simply must lie ahead. With McNamara, it’s the latter. (McNamara take the Browns seriously: He and his wife fix elaborate themed meals for every game). 

“I still think we are underforecasting revenue quite significantly,” McNamara said. “I think we could wind up with $28 billion. We could be $4 billion, $4.5 billion richer on an ongoing basis. The grocery tax eats a half bill out of that revenue, an increase in the standard deduction taxes a billion out. There’s just plenty there to do something with.” (For what it’s worth, he also thinks that “something” should include state funding for school construction). 

We’ll see whether the Senate – a narrowly Democratic Senate – sees things the same way. Either way, the unassuming ice cream salesman (who out of session can sometimes be found scooping up that ice cream for customers) gets to make this extraordinary but true claim: “I’m sitting on two of the biggest tax reduction bills in the past 10 years.” And somewhere up there, Henry Howell is approving of at least one of them.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.