- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

RICHMOND Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III said yesterday that he's met all the triggers to continue the next phase of the car-tax cut, and in effect dared the General Assembly to stop the tax cut from going through when it convenes in January.
The Republican governor, who made the car-tax cut the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign three years ago, wants to use some creative methods to meet the technical terms of the car-tax cut agreement he and the legislature worked out in 1998.
But he is proposing cuts to many state agencies to pay for the car-tax cut, and that will be a tough sell to the legislature. And his plan to pay for new buildings at college campuses through a lump-sum payment from the state's settlement with cigarette makers will force him to face the same questions he faced in the previous legislative session, which made him abandon the plan.
The plan will get a full airing tomorrow, when Mr. Gilmore and Secretary of Finance Ronald Tillett brief the legislative money committees on the administration's new budget plans. Yesterday, many lawmakers said they weren't clear enough on the details to make a judgment.
Speaking at a news conference in Henrico County, Mr. Gilmore said he has delivered on his two big promises funding education and cutting the car tax.
He said people have to believe that when they elect someone to office that person is going to keep his word about what he is going to do, and carry out an election mandate.
"When I campaigned for governor, I promised to fund education first, and then cut the car tax. And I'm a man of my word, and I keep my promises," he said.
In the past few months, the administration learned that state revenue was growing about 3.2 percent more than last year's figure about 2 percent below the projection. That meant the state wouldn't reach one of the "triggers," or mileposts the governor and legislature wrote into the law in 1998 when they agreed to phase out the local personal-property tax on cars up to $20,000 of value per car over five years and to reimburse localities for lost revenues.
But Mr. Gilmore is proposing that the state take some of the money due from the tobacco companies more than $4 billion over 20 years in a lump-sum payment now.
That money would then be included in this year's revenue, and would put the state over the trigger.
At that point, the fourth phase of the tax cut under which the state would pay 70 percent and car owners 30 percent of the bill automatically kicks in and it's up to the legislature to take it out.
The governor and many Republican Party leaders don't think they will. They hope the appeal of the tax cut which they say their polls show is 75 percent or higher will convince lawmakers to get on board.
Still, the roadblocks are apparent.
Taking a lump-sum payment on the tobacco money will seem like smoke and mirrors to many who argue it's just a way for the governor to artificially boost his revenue numbers.
Also, Mr. Gilmore already tried to take a lump-sum payment of tobacco money in last year's session to fund his road-building plan. But that ran into a roadblock in the state Senate, where lawmakers said it was going to pay for transportation projects mainly in Northern Virginia, that it wasn't a financially sound mechanism, and that it bankrolled the present on the back of the future.
Yesterday, Democratic lawmakers said they don't think the governor has overcome some of those objections.
Still, the question is not where to add money, but where to cut. Virginia has a two-year budget, and it is currently in the second year of that budget. The state already planned the fourth phase of the car-tax cut, as well as many other increases in spending.
Since Virginia assumed a higher growth rate in revenue than it actually will receive, there will be a budget gap to be closed this year, meaning the state will have to make cuts.
Mr. Gilmore is proposing across-the-board cuts between 3 percent and 6 percent in most state agencies, excluding public safety, mental health and education. Details of those cuts will be disclosed tomorrow.
But Democrats and some Republicans are wondering whether the cuts should come from other areas, including delaying the car-tax relief.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said his constituents complain to him that local schools need more money and that there aren't enough slots for Virginia students to go to state schools. He said those areas need to be funded.
"When this guy says give the money back to the people or [have the government] spend it, what he should say is give it back and don't spend it on higher education or K-through-12 schools," Mr. Saslaw said.

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