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Devil, details, rinse, repeat / February 20, 2019
With the General Assembly drawing to a close, let us pause for a moment to take stock of the great debate that consumed lawmakers this session: tax conformity. Solemn vow: I won’t type those words any more than absolutely necessary! The details of the tax conformity issue are mind-numbingly dull, which explains why it never achieved Kardashian-like saliency in the lives of ordinary Virginians, yet there’s an actual story to be told behind all the political jockeying and policy manifestos. Which is this: For all the crowing by Assembly Republicans on how they fought off evil Democrats and spared Virginian citizens a massive tax hike, the truth is this entire mess was triggered in the first place by the awfulness of the Republican tax law passed by Congress and signed by Donald Trump, a.k.a. the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Bill.

That’s the same law, by the way, that lined the pockets of many of the wealthiest people in America while doing next to nothing to boost long-term investment, unless you think a wave of stockholder buybacks (tax-advantaged under the TCJA) will lay a foundation for a better future for your children and grandchildren. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.) Meantime, Virginia is just one of many states having to cope with the unintended consequences of the 2017 tax bill, which truly was an execrable piece of legislation. For the sake of today’s discussion, the important thing to know is the law screwed up the alignment of federal and state tax codes, and Virginia was left with decisions to make as a result — with consequences down the line. (More about that in a second.) But enough about Richmond politicos and their dishwater-dull debates: What does all this mean for you and your pocketbook?

Alas, the news isn’t swell: The big takeaway from the tax bill (apart from the purely Virginia angle) is that it has snuck up this year to bite a lot of folks in the posterior. Googling the words “tax bill surprise,” I saw this headline from Yahoo Finance: “Trump’s ‘tax scam’: Some taxpayers get unwelcome surprise after filing tax returns.” The story, in brief, is this: Because the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Bill reduced the tax withholding on paychecks, most people got a little more take-home pay each week. But because those withholdings are key to determining how much of a refund you’ll receive when you file your year-end taxes, lots of people are finding out they won’t be receiving much or any refund at all — in fact, some are even finding they owe money to the government. Mostly, the 2017 tax bill was all but a wash for a majority of the American public. But life sure doesn’t feel that way if you don’t get a refund or, heavens forbid, have to stroke a check to the IRS come April 15. And honestly, what’s the point of hyping tax cuts if no one even knows they exist?

The Virginia tax conformity debate — oops, my bad, typed it a third time — is of this ilk. There was a brief skirmish up in Richmond over the particulars, Democrats indeed backed off some of their demands, Gov. Northam signed legislation last week to immediately change the state code with tax season already upon us, and no one will remember the entire hullabaloo tomorrow. (To the extent anyone paid attention in the first place.) But on a related subject, you know what does get people’s dander up? Not having access to the Internet. It sucks to live five miles outside of town and not be able to stream whatever’s on Netflix, amirite? Enter one of the real-life consequences of the Richmond fetish for tax reform that only wonks care about.

Governor Northam, in his version of budget, earmarked $50 million for expansion of broadband service to rural Virginia, up from the current $4 million. The money is a pittance compared to the need (Buggs Island Telephone, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and many others will be competing for funding), but at least Northam’s budget represents a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, his request was slashed in the budget proposals by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the state Senate, which provide $20 million and $19 million, respectively, for the same purpose. This is the inevitable result of forsaking the tax revenue that would have flowed into state coffers under the Democratic plans for tax conformity. The likes of state Sen. Frank Ruff and Del. Tommy Wright are more than happy to trumpet their heroic obstructionism against government revenue-generating capabilities, but they remain curiously silent about the downsides of their resistance. In this case, the impact will be borne by their rural constituents who can now look forward to being left further behind in our new digital age. That, plus no Netflix.

But hey, put down those screens and pop the corks, happy days are here again!


Now for something completely different: I don’t watch sports as much as I’d like, but I do try to stay up on my sports-related reading material, and it seems that NBA scouts have gone ga-ga over Duke’s Zion Williamson, a 285-pound masher with Tinkerbell agility and a nice shooting touch to match. For my money, however, (and I say this advisedly in ACC country) the best story in college basketball right now is the Kentucky Wildcats, who just beat No. 1 Tennessee after going into the game ranked fifth in the country. Kentucky’s leading scorer is none other than freshman Keldon Johnson, formerly a freshman phenom with the Park View Dragons. (Johnson set the VSHL state mark for most points by a ninth grader before ascending to prep school competition.) I read a recent piece in “Sports Illustrated” that projects Johnson as the 15th pick in the upcoming NBA draft, although other prognosticators have him going higher. At any rate, second only to my faves the Virginia Cavaliers, I know who I’m rooting for once March Madness rolls around. And no, I don’t mean Duke. Go KJ and the ‘Cats!

Speaking of rooting interest: Oscar awards night is Sunday, and heading into the weekend I’ve seen only four of the eight movies up for Best Picture: “A Star Is Born,” “Vice,” “Roma” and “Black Panther.” Of the four contenders I’ve missed, “Green Book” sounds like a remake of “Driving Miss Daisy “with the racial roles reversed, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was, I’m reliably informed by my wife and daughter, a blast of a musical biopic that has no business being nominated for Best Picture, “BlacKkKlansman” has no known connection to Virginia’s governor, and “The Favourite” is, alas, nobody’s favorite. So let’s continue this discussion by going with what we know.

First: “Vice” features a great performance by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, so much so that it wouldn’t be the least bit upsetting to see him win the Best Actor award, although the Hollywood wires say it ain’t happening. Sam Rockwell snagging a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the role as George W. Bush while Michael B. Jordan was snubbed as the baddie in “Black Panther” is insult on top of injury the likes of which no human being has experienced since Dick Cheney shot his hunting partner in the face. More generally, “Vice” has no business being in the running for Best Picture. It’s pretty meh.

Second: I loved “A Star Is Born” and would let Lady Gaga run the world if it were up to me, insofar as she’s simply that terrific as an actress and singer. “Shallow” is a soul-stirring song, and the scene in the film where Gaga takes the stage to duet with Bradley Cooper’s character is as good as movies get as far as concert scenes are concerned. (“A Star Is Born” also marks the moment when Rocket Raccoon morphed into Cary Grant by way of Bradley Cooper). Yet as much as I enjoyed this movie, the second half is a bit of a drag, and as such I can’t really see ASIB as 2018’s Best Picture. Which leaves the final two entries on the list,” Black Panther” and Roma.

Latter nominee first: I held out hopes of seeing “Roma” on the big screen, which wasn’t happening because the limited theatrical release. So I finally broke down and caught “Roma” on Netflix. Even on a laptop screen (pitiful, I know) it’s painfully obvious that there shouldn’t even be a contest for Best Cinematography this year. Just give the damn award to “Roma” and be done with it. The cinematographer also happens to be the director, Alfonso Cuarón, and his body of work is amazing: 2006’s “Children of Men” is easily one of the best films of the young century, and Cuarón is also responsible for my favorite Harry Potter movie (“Prisoner of Azkaban”) and 2013’s most mind-blowing moviegoing experience, “Gravity.” I love, love, love this man’s work, and “Roma” is no exception: It’s a quiet story in most respects, but there are scenes of emotional fragility and terror that have few equals on the big screen. Plus, “Roma” features a bunch of long tracking shots that would give Hitchcock the willies. “Roma” would be an entirely deserving Best Picture winner.

But my hope is for “Black Panther” to take home the little golden man. It probably won’t happen, because of the formulaic demands of Marvel and all, but in my humble opinion it should: “Black Panther” is enthralling, often hilarious, wonderful to look at and full of more ideas than supposedly serious films would ever think to broach. Even within the storytelling confines of a superhero movie, there are ruminations on black identity, colonialism, feminism, power and the responsibility of the strong towards the weak that set the mind racing. Furthermore, as feats of imagination go, it would be hard to top the depiction of the mythical African nation of Wakanda, where high-rise buildings are connected by sleek trains whooshing above the native flora of the plains. Now there’s a vision of the Green New Deal that I can get behind one thousand percent. Wakanda forever!

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