We all know that Virginia's budget is tightening thanks to declining revenues. We also know that another huge gap has recently been introduced, as the abuser fees were abolished without any revenue plan to take the place of that money. Virginia also faces a looming potential gap as future SCHIP funding remains at risk.
Virginia needs more revenue. It is not a matter costs and better management of existing government functions, Virginia is among the most efficient, best-run states in the nation. The need for basic government functions (roads, schools, basic safety net, etc.) is growing with our state and our economy. Virginia is among the lowest-tax states in the country, and that is a good thing. It is an important element of our quality of life. However, in order to maintain our lifestyle and the quality of our government, we need to find a way to raise more money without negatively impacting that quality of life.
One of the tenets of good government is well-targeted taxes and programs, like gas taxes going for transportation improvements, or early-education programs with which a little spending now reduces the need for a lot of spending later. An important driver of government costs is the health of the population. The less healthy people are, the less they work and the more they use government services. This is among the reasons for cigarette taxes. Cigarettes cause health problems, so the government needs money to pay for the effects of cigarette use.
Today, a very similar argument can be made for trans fats. Research has shown that trans fats are remarkably unhealthy, linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, even belly fat. The impact of this unhealthy element of our diet is felt directly in the costs of public health, as more people need help managing and controlling chronic health problems, and the emergency healthcare system is strained with more acute problems resulting from untreated conditions.
Virginia should implement a trans fat tax. The state should tax the sale of foods that contain trans fats at between 1% and 1.5%, depending on how much it costs to implement the tax at the point of sale. Businesses should not have to bear the cost of implementation, so the tax must pay for itself. This money would be designated towards the state's healthcare costs (FAMIS, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) in the same manner that the gas tax is designated to transportation improvements.
By creating a dedicated source of revenue for the cost of public health care, Virginia's citizens would be somewhat insulated from the vagaries of government funding which come from unpredictable budget cycles. Furthermore, such a tax would create an incentive to eat healthier, which would reduce the state's long-term costs for care of conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
Furthermore, Virginia should pass legislation allowing localities to introduce their own trans fat tax, of up to an additional 1% (depending on the cost of implementation, as above). In this manner, places that want to reduce the use of trans fats, like Arlington, would have a tool available, while other localities which might prefer not to introduce another tax would have that option. In light of revenue shortfalls in County budgets resulting from the mortgage crisis, an alternative source of revenue which is linked to a cause of county government costs makes sense.
A trans fat tax splits the difference between an outright ban on trans fats, which may raise the questions of liberty and choice, and ignoring the fact that these foods lead to direct costs for all taxpayers down the road. It creates an incentive to eat healthier. It is a tool for closing budget gaps without cutting back on the education of our children or the well-being of our most at-risk populations. Finally, a trans fat ban would emphasize the link between cause and effect in our everyday choices, and help capture the costs that some decisions impose on society.