- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Good news for Virginian automobile owners and taxpayers. The Virginia General Assembly left town Sunday having failed to perform one of its signal duties: passing an amended budget for the last year of the commonwealth's two-year budget cycle. That means that the hated car tax a progressive personal property tax for which Virginia residents had to stroke an annual check is still on its way to being phased-out.

Lawmakers from both the House of Delegates and the Senate were chagrined by their failure, naturally, and they told reporters as much. But what held up the amended budget was a disagreement in the two chambers over the car tax. Had the two sides been able to agree, they might have decided to do the "statesmanlike" thing and negotiated away the cut.

Certainly that's what the Virginia Senate, led by Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester, Republican of Stafford, wanted to do. Faced with slowing tax revenues from a slowing economy, Mr. Chichester said, in effect, that the state government could not afford to let taxpayers keep as much money as the General Assembly and Gov. Jim Gilmore had once promised. Instead of allowing them 70 percent relief from the car tax up from 47.5 percent today they would have to make due with just 55 percent, Mr. Chichester said. The government just couldn't make ends meet if it allowed more.

The House, on the other hand, insisted on abiding by the 70 percent promise. Senate negotiators tried tempting their House counterparts with a trigger provision that would have allowed car-tax relief to rise above 55 percent, but that was too uncertain for House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Republican of Amherst, and for Vincent Callahan Jr., Republican of Fairfax. "Fifty-five is nothing," Mr. Callahan said. "We've got to go to 70 [percent]."

Now it falls to Mr. Gilmore to do what the two chambers could not: fashion a revised budget that takes into account the shortfall in tax revenues. By law he cannot appropriate money. All he can do is cut spending. As lawmakers left town, the governor issued an order asking state agencies to prepare plans on cutting as much as 15 percent out of their budgets. He also froze capital projects not already under way. The cuts, by the way, do not apply either to schools or social services such as mental health. Lawmakers could void such cuts by passing an amended budget during a special session next month, but that seems unlikely given their inability to do so up to now.

Mr. Chichester issued dark warnings to administration officials who dare to carry out such cuts. "If they choose to raid the essential services of Virginia to provide a tax break," he said, "then that will be on their shoulders, not the Senate's." Mr. Gilmore's plans affect about 1 percent of the state's current budget. Leave it to a government official to argue that that amounts to a "raid" on essential services.

The governor and the House obviously have a different perspective on the controversy. Their implicit message is that the government has got to stop treating taxpayers as the cash register of last resort; their needs are no less important than the government's. If Mr. Chichester and friends understood that they might find it easier to get their work done on time.

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