- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III yesterday defended his administration's handling of the state's economy and dismissed comments by fellow Republicans that the state is headed for financial trouble.
During an appearance at George Mason University, Mr. Gilmore said a negative prediction made by state Sen. John H. Chichester that Virginia would face a $500 million shortfall next year was hyperbolic speculation.
"What they said yesterday was, 'Gee, let's add up everything we want to spend now for the next year, not the past year,'" said Mr. Gilmore, who released more than $15 million to GMU for construction of an academic building at its Fairfax campus at the appearance. "None of us know yet what the budget is going to look like as we move forward. The bottom line is they are premature in trying to assess what this budget is going to look like."
Mr. Gilmore said lawmakers could produce a wish list for projects and programs they want funded, but he said the repeal of the car tax will go on as planned, regardless of any negative predictions.
"I am committed to that priority," Mr. Gilmore said.
The overwhelming majority of Republicans, as well as several Democrats, support the Republican governor on cutting the car tax next year. Polls show most Virginians also support the full repeal.
In this year's General Assembly session, lawmakers were unable to amend the state's two-year budget, with the size of the car-tax cut the main sticking point. The House sided with Mr. Gilmore and wanted to move it to 70 percent; the Senate, citing the slowing economy, proposed moving the rebate to 55 percent.
Because neither side was willing to compromise, Mr. Gilmore was forced to make $421 million in cuts to state programs and projects, including construction at state colleges and campuses. The car-tax repeal, which is actually a reimbursement by the state to localities of a tax they collect, is set to be fully effective next year.
The $15 million he released yesterday is on top of the $10 million he released Monday for construction of Peters Hall at Radford University in Southwest Virginia. Gilmore administration officials said the governor expects to release about $100 million to college campuses during the next two months.
George Mason University President Alan Merten said he was pleased with the governor's decision to release the money for construction of its new academic building, but expressed concern that another legislative impasse could threaten higher education.
Mr. Gilmore said the 100 percent level is already written into his 2002-2004 biennial budget and that the General Assembly and the victorious gubernatorial candidate, Republican Mark L. Earley or Democrat Mark R. Warner, would have to revamp the budget to "roll back" the car-tax repeal.
The $500 million in unfunded needs Mr. Chichester and others spoke of includes, among other items, about $125 million for salary increases to state workers and college professors, roughly $60 million for mandated care of special-education students, and $115 million to cover the state's share of Medicaid.
Mr. Chichester, Stafford Republican, was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee last session and a driving force behind the Senate's push for the smaller car-tax cut. On Monday, he pointed to another $100 million that will be needed to fully repeal the car tax. It is expected to reduce the state treasury by at least $1.5 billion annually once fully implemented.
Mr. Gilmore said he will have a balanced budget, as required by law.
"There is no hole in the budget," Mr. Gilmore said.
State Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat, said Mr. Gilmore is simply shuffling the numbers around on paper to make his budgets look overly optimistic.
"He sees blue skies and sunshine from here on out till he leaves," Mrs. Byrne said. "He doesn't want to take responsibility for the real numbers. He's left us scratching our heads."
Mrs. Byrne predicted that next year's General Assembly is going to be put "in a real predicament" because it will have to make some tough choices to balance the budget and ensure vital programs and projects are funded.
But Delegate David Albo, Fairfax Republican, said the debate boiled down to legislators wanting to spend the kind of money they had just a couple of years ago.
"In 1994, if we had 3 percent growth and two-hundred-some-odd million dollars, we would have been jumping up for joy, kissing our biceps and think it was the greatest year of all time," Mr. Albo said. "Now, everybody is getting use to these billion-dollar increases."


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