Fleecing taxpayers first

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It comes as no surprise that even with new budget figures showing surpluses ahead for Virginia, Democratic and Republican politicians who rammed through close to $1.4 billion worth of tax increases one month ago don’t want to part with any of their loot. The unwillingness of Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and General Assembly members who supported tax increases to seriously consider returning the surplus to hard-pressed taxpayers raises some important questions: Did the new budget figures come completely out of the blue, or did anyone in state government know weeks ago that the state’s economy was improving? Could Mr. Warner and Senate Republicans’ all-out push for higher taxes have been motivated by a desire to lock in tax increases before the public realized that they were completely unnecessary?

According to Mr. Warner, as much as 75 percent of the money should be kept in an expanded “rainy day fund” (in other words, on hand for politicians to provide favors to their well-connected friends). A decision to return the money to taxpayers appears very unlikely right now.

Sen. John Chichester, Stafford Republican — the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and perhaps the General Assembly’s most aggressive advocate of higher taxes — promises to fight against any effort to cut the car tax. “I don’t see how we could possibly approve something like that,” he says, unless the revenue were made up through higher state income taxes. One of Mr. Chichester’s allies in ramming through the tax increase, Sen. Kenneth Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, brusquely dismissed the idea as well.

On the House side, Delegate Harvey Morgan, Gloucester Republican, declared that he “would absolutely oppose” cutting the car tax. For his part, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent Callahan says he’ll lobby to repeal the car-tax increase next year, but doubts the legislature will repeal the tax increases. Delegate Riley Ingram, a Hopewell Republican who voted for the tax increases, wants the surplus used to fix the state’s accelerated sales-tax collection system, so that revenues can be more efficiently taken from large businesses.

By contrast, Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore has it right. He points out that the growing economy shows that the tax increases weren’t needed, and that the state must cut taxes. But Mr. Kilgore will not have the opportunity to do anything about it before 2006 at the earliest — and that assumes that he runs for and is elected governor. In the meantime, Mr. Warner and the high-tax Republicans will continue to run the show in Richmond.

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