- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Virginia Republicans hope to swing the brickbat of the car tax at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark R. Warner this year, the same way they used it to defeat the Democratic nominee in 1997.
Now, with one final stage and 30 percent of the hated tax still to be eliminated, Republicans have every reason to make the issue pivotal in the Nov. 6 election for Virginia governor.
Both candidates say they support the final phaseout, but only Republican Mark L. Earley promises to do it next year. Mr. Warner says he wants to do it next year, but makes no guarantees.
Republicans argue that Mr. Earley's commitment is the point. They've already highlighted it in television ads, campaign speeches and mailings.
"The car tax has never lost an election yet," says Ed Matricardi, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.
Four years ago, James S. Gilmore III rode into the governor's office on the strength of the votes of hundreds of thousands of car owners who loved his pledge to do away with the personal property tax on up to $20,000 of a car's value. In that race, Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. first opposed, then later reconsidered and offered his own partial phaseout —but it wasn't enough to overcome Mr. Gilmore.
Republicans say the car-tax cut also boosted them in more than a dozen legislative special elections since and helped them win total control of the General Assembly in 1999. The issue even played a part in unseating U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, a two-term Democrat, last year.
Mr. Warner, 46, and his campaign believe the race is drastically different from 1997 for several reasons — foremost among them is his support for eliminating the tax.
"Mark Warner's position on the car tax is very clear. He will eliminate it. He'd like to do it next year, and when he becomes governor he's going to take a look at the books and figure out the best way to do it. That's what he's said consistently from the beginning of this campaign," said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Mr. Warner.
Mr. Warner doesn't need to win the issue — just neutralize it, and his campaign aides feel they have done that, and then some, by also questioning Mr. Earley's resolve on the issue.
"Four years ago, a promise was made, but has since been broken. That promise was that elimination of the car tax wouldn't harm other state services," Mr. Elleithee said. "We are making the case that [Mr. Warner] is the only candidate who can eliminate the car tax without jeopardizing other programs. Mark Earley cannot make that promise."
With more than three months to go before the election, there is time for either campaign to come forward with a signature issue, but so far the car tax remains a prominent retread.
The difference between keeping on schedule and freezing the rebate next year comes to $211.49 for the typical Fairfax County household, county budget officers figure. It means less to other parts of the state, where the tax rate and car values are lower than in Northern Virginia.
Robert Holsworth, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who moderated Saturday's debate between the candidates, said Mr. Earley, 46, is trying to have the situation both ways: He wants to be associated with the car-tax cut itself, but doesn't want the baggage of the last six months' legislative budget impasse over the issue, which left public employees without pay raises.
Mr. Holsworth likened it to the challenge facing Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in relation to then-President Clinton: "He wants to take credit for the activities, but differ from the style."
Republicans see Mr. Earley's challenge as similar to another Gore problem — the "I am my own man" issue. Mr. Earley has to run on the past two Republican governors' records, but also has to have new proposals to sell himself.
To that extent, Mr. Earley is highlighting his commitment to phasing out the state's share of the sales tax on food.
The tax was reduced last year from 4.5 cents on the dollar to 4 cents and is scheduled to go down to 2 cents, but the slowing economy has also slowed the schedule for the reduction.
Mr. Earley has only said he would make the tax cut a priority, leaving Democrats to wonder what the big deal is.
"Current law already calls for elimination of the food tax, and Mark Warner supports that law. It ain't exactly a profile in courage for Mark Earley to go out on that limb," Mr. Elleithee said.

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