- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Car owners in Virginia will get their car-tax bills cut by 70 percent for sure this year thanks to a state judge who dismissed a lawsuit that would have frozen the refund at last year's much lower level.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Theodore J. Markow threw out a lawsuit filed by the two senators who claimed Gov. James S. Gilmore III illegally pushed for a 70 percent rollback this year.

"Even though the petition clearly states that petitioners believe that the governor's revenue forecast did not comply with statutory requirements and even that the governor 'sidestepped' procedural safeguards, it is void of language allowing the court to infer bad faith on the part of the governor," Judge Markow wrote in a 10-page opinion made public yesterday.

Judge Markow also ruled that Sens. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican, and Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, had no legal standing to challenge the Republican governor's budgetary decisions in court.

"If individual taxpayers with no real or substantial interest were allowed to litigate this action," Judge Markow wrote, "then virtually every taxpayer in Virginia would have standing to challenge virtually every appropriation passed by the General Assembly and every act taken by the governor in furtherance of that appropriation."

The two senators said yesterday they were disappointed by the judge's ruling but did not expect to appeal it. The senators said they knew it was "a long shot" because the laws governing the revenue projections are "so vaguely written."

However, Mr. Barry and Mr. Saslaw remain concerned about the economic state of the commonwealth. It would take an estimated $1.5 billion each year to replace the lost car-tax revenue.

"The money just isn't there to pay for the car tax," Mr. Barry said. "Mr. Gilmore is the captain of the ship, and he's got the ship headed for the rocks. And he's the only one with life jacket on because he's going to bail in five months and leave us with this mess."

Mr. Saslaw agreed. "We never would have passed the bill if we knew what the end result would be," he said.

Lila White, the governor's spokeswoman, said Mr. Gilmore was pleased with the ruling. "Mr. Gilmore is gratified that the efforts to derail the people's car-tax cut has failed," Mrs. White said. "The governor remains committed to eliminating the car tax."

The filing of the lawsuit last spring did not stop the state from sending out the reduced car-tax bills this summer. Taxes are due Oct. 5.

The legislature adjourned last spring without amending the two-year budget it passed last year. The two chambers deadlocked over the size of the state's rebate on the personal property tax on cars. A majority of delegates agreed with the governor that it should stay on schedule at 70 percent this year, but most senators wanted only a 55 percent rebate.

Mr. Barry and Mr. Saslaw argued in court papers that the Republican governor didn't meet the technical requirements when he allowed the state's share of car owners' bills to advance to 70 percent this year. They said Mr. Gilmore's actions violated a 1998 law that freezes the phaseout during economic downturns.

The lawsuit claimed that in the fall of 2000, Mr. Gilmore submitted outdated revenue figures to the Advisory Council of Revenue Estimates to come up with a projected 5.7 percent revenue increase for 2000-01.

State attorneys argued that the revenue projections the administration used were the official estimates approved by the General Assembly in May 2000 and therefore were valid. In using those numbers, Mr. Gilmore did not abuse his discretion, they argued.

"The court's ruling confirms our argument that there was never any legal basis for this lawsuit," Attorney General Randolph A. Beales said yesterday.

The other petitioners in the lawsuit were Northern Virginia businessmen Earle C. Williams, former George Mason University President George W. Johnson, Newport News lawyer Herbert V. Kelley Sr., and Roanoke businessman Warner Dalhouse.

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