- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, delivering his fourth State of the Commonwealth address, urged state lawmakers last night to continue the bipartisan spirit and fiscal discipline they showed last year when they passed a massive tax-reform package.

The Democratic governor, who was interrupted by applause more than 30 times, said the state of the commonwealth was “strong.”

“When I first came before you three years ago, the commonwealth faced an uncertain future,” Mr. Warner told a joint session of the House and Senate. “Political gridlock, a deepening national recession and a lack of fiscal discipline had created the worst budgetary crisis in Virginia history.”

Mr. Warner said that in 2002, he asked for renewed bipartisanship to build “a stronger foundation for Virginia’s future.”

“And that’s exactly what you did,” he told the lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and dignitaries in the House of Delegates chamber. “And tonight, with renewed confidence in the future, I thank you. Thank you very, very much.”

The governor delivered his speech on the opening day of a 46-day session during which Mr. Warner and legislators will amend the two-year, $61 billion budget adopted last year.

After thebitter 115-day legislative session last year, a group of Republicans joined Democrats to pass a sweeping $1.38 billion tax-reform package that increased the sales, cigarette and real estate taxes and reduced others.

The package allowed Virginia to retain its coveted AAA bond rating and enabled lawmakers to spend more on health care, education and public safety.

“We’ve shown that here in Virginia, Democrats and Republicans can come together, put politics aside and make tough decisions when times demand it,” Mr. Warner said.

Last night, Republicans, who control both chambers of the legislature, characterized Mr. Warner’s speech as “safe” and noted he did not advance any new agenda.

Others said the speech was geared to appeal to moderates who are eyeing Mr. Warner for a run for U.S. Senate or the presidency.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the presumed Republican nominee for governor, said Mr. Warner did a good job of appealing to his opposing party.

“It was a speech to reach out to Republicans,” Mr. Kilgore said.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, Mr. Kilgore’s likely Democratic opponent for governor, praised Mr. Warner for his “common-sense proposals” and said he thinks much will be accomplished this session.

“We will use these 45 days productively,” he said.

Some criticized the governor for supporting increased taxes in the face of a rebounding economy. The state has a projected $919 million budget surplus partly because of the rebounding economy and tax increases.

“The speech was fairly standard, but he mentioned the surplus,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “I think this does call into question the need for the massive tax increases he wanted.”

However, Mr. Warner and most legislative leaders agree the surplus should be spent on one-time expenses, including a major cash infusion to help fix the state’s ailing transportation system. The governor also wants to cut the food tax two years ahead of schedule and add $230 million to the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

“I am determined that Virginia will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Mr. Warner said. “We are filled this evening with hope, optimism and the shared determination to do what is best for our people.”

The governor called his agenda “ambitious.”

“It will keep Virginia’s budget balanced. It will strengthen our schools, continue our work to reform transportation and create new economic opportunities for the people of the commonwealth,” he said. “But as with everything else we’ve done, keeping Virginia on the right track will require us to work together, to abandon petty politics and to put Virginia first.”

Mr. Warner also praised the estimated 2,000 troops from Virginia’s National Guard who have been called to active duty and the four Virginians who were killed in the mess hall attack in Mosul last month.

“Their sacrifices call to mind the values that have sustained this nation in good times and bad: loyalty, patriotism, courage and service,” he said, praising the troops in the gallery audience.

Mr. Warner told Virginians that more good things are to come.

“We’re outpacing the rest of the nation in creating new jobs. As many of you know, on a single day last November, we were able to announce more than 11,000 new jobs coming to the commonwealth,” he said.

Mr. Warner spoke of the need for improving transportation, an issue that will dominate the session.

He has proposed that $824 million go toward public-private partnerships and rail and transit initiatives. The sum also would be used to pay off debt and repay the Transportation Trust Fund.

House Republicans have proposed a $938 million plan similar to the governor’s proposal. Besides relying on public-private partnerships, the House plan counts on insurance-premium tax revenues and $100 million from an “abuser fee” program. The program, if passed, would impose higher fines on drivers who speed or who drive while drunk, recklessly or with a suspended license.

Senate Republicans will present their transportation plan next week.

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