- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

RICHMOND — Only five Virginians have taken advantage of a 2-year-old program that allows them to donate more of their money to the state in taxes — to the total sum of $6,602.

As the House and Senate wrangle over whether to raise taxes, the results of the “Tax Me More” program would indicate that taxpayers prefer to hold on to their hard-earned cash rather than give it to the state.

“I find it interesting that people that wanted to be taxed more have not contributed more to the fund,” said Delegate M. Kirk Cox, Chesterfield Republican and author of the bill that created the program in 2002.

“The purpose was for people who feel they are undertaxed to step up to the plate and help out the state government,” said Mr. Cox, who is opposed to general tax increases. “Six thousand dollars over two years is not very good.”

Throughout the budget negotiations, those senators who support increasing the state sales, cigarette and income taxes have said their constituents want to pay higher taxes so the state’s services can be better funded.

But delegates such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. who have stood firm against general tax increases wonder why those senators haven’t contributed to the more than $12 billion General Fund that pays for state services and government operations. The Tax Me More program is part of the General Fund.

The Fairfax Republican said he admires the five donors. “I chastise all the others who want higher taxes that don’t contribute,” he said. “It’s hypocritical.”

Among the five donors is Sen. D. Nick Rerras, a Norfolk Republican who voted against the Senate tax-increase plan. He donated about $50.

“There are a lot of citizens that are continually advocating for higher taxes and doing away with tax breaks,” Mr. Rerras said. “It’s good for people to have a mechanism where they can contribute back to the state, but not many people are interested in contributing of their own volition.”

When he proposed the bill, Mr. Cox said, he expected the program to add $50,000 a year to state coffers. The House and Senate unanimously passed the bill.

However, few who support tax increases have encouraged Virginians to donate to the program.

Gov. Mark Warner doesn’t mention the program when he touts his tax and spending proposal to taxpayers statewide, his spokeswoman said. The Democratic governor wants to raise $1 billion in revenue by increasing the state sales, cigarette and income taxes.

“What you’re seeing in public hearings across the state right now is that Virginians are willing to go out and publicly link the taxes they pay with services they receive,” said Ellen Qualls, the governor’s spokeswoman.

“It’s a fun gimmick to talk about, but it doesn’t negate the larger issue that services … cost money,” she said. “It’s not like if the governor talks to 10,000 people and they all give 20 bucks that will make a dent in the $12 billion in need.”

Other lawmakers also don’t mention the program to their constituents.

Last week, Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, said his constituents were “willing to accept” tax increases. However, he didn’t mention the program.

Sen. Linda T. Puller, Fairfax Democrat, said a constituent at a recent forum was so supportive of the Senate tax-increase plan that he pulled out his wallet and asked how much money he could give to the state.

When asked whether the man was told about the program, Mrs. Puller said the program was not mentioned and that she was not familiar with it. “I don’t think it got very wide publicity,” she said yesterday.

Even when it got some publicity — including mentions in delegates’ newsletters and on conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s radio show — the program got very little response.

“There are not very many contributions,” said Janie Bowen, with the state Department of Taxation.

Besides Mr. Rerras, residents Andrew K. Kohlhepp and John E. Meyers contributed to the program. Two made anonymous donations, according to Miss Bowen. The donation figures were not available.

Mr. Rerras said it was difficult to obtain the form to make a donation. He proposed amending the program by adjusting the state income tax forms to add a question about whether the taxpayer wanted to donate to the program.

But Mr. Cox said adjusting the tax forms would cost about $100,000, a nonsensical expense given the lack of donations.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the donation program can go to the Department of Taxation Web site, www.tax.state.va.us/site.cfm?alias=GeneralFundDonations.

Meanwhile, 15 college students who are members of Virginia 21 donated 200,000 pennies, or $2,000, to the state Treasury Department yesterday to show support for the proposed 1-cent sales-tax increase. The money will go into the General Fund and will be earmarked for education.

“Wouldn’t we rather pay a penny than see $613 tuition increases on Virginia families?” asked Brian Cannon, student government president at the College of William and Mary. “It’s time to stop passing the buck.”

Mr. Callahan said closed-door conversations with Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester have been productive, and that he is confident a budget compromise will be reached. “Public meetings don’t accomplish anything,” he said. “I’m in constant contact with John Chichester, and we’re going to come up with something eventually.”

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