- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2001

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Republican candidate Mark L. Earley vowed at the first Virginia gubernatorial debate yesterday to phase out the car tax on schedule next year, while Democratic candidate Mark R. Warner promised to complete the task within four years.
But Mr. Warner wouldn't commit to more quickly phasing out the tax until he examines the state's finances: "I will work to finish the car tax. My hope is to finish it next year. But as any prudent businessperson, any head of a household, would know — you look at the numbers first before making a determination," Mr. Warner, an Alexandria businessman, said.
But Mr. Earley countered that Mr. Warner's promise wasn't good enough.
"The worst thing the next governor could do is to let the issue of the car tax linger around longer. We are four-fifths of the way done, we need to finish the job we began and move on," said Mr. Earley, who resigned last month as state attorney general to run for governor.
The two men, both 46, squared off for 90 minutes at the Virginia Bar Association's summer meeting at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia — the traditional spot for the first governor's debate.
It is also where Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. cost himself the race for governor four years ago — and on the same issue of the car tax.
Republican James S. Gilmore III had already released his popular plan to phase out the personal property tax on the first $20,000 value of private automobiles, and Mr. Beyer responded at the Greenbrier with a half-hearted plan of his own. But the move backfired, as the polls — which had shown him leading Mr. Gilmore — turned around, and Mr. Gilmore went on to victory.
Yesterday's debate picked the car-tax issue up where Mr. Gilmore will leave it at the end of his term as Virginia's governor — with car owners receiving a 70 percent rebate on taxes up to $20,000 value of their cars, at a cost of about $1 billion a year to the state's treasury. The schedule calls for a 100 percent rebate next year.
But gridlock over the car tax in this year's General Assembly session left the state without amendments to the two-year budget, meaning there will be no state money this fiscal year for public employee pay raises and state-aided cultural institutions.
Both men pledged that legislative gridlock wouldn't occur during their tenure as governor. However, Mr. Warner charged that Mr. Earley should have done more as a member of the administration to head off the car-tax impasse. The Democratic businessman also said that Mr. Earley should have worked harder to implement many of the programs he has been advocating during his campaign.
"I'm not elected to anything," Mr. Warner said. "You're part of this administration. Leadership means stepping up."
Mr. Earley responded by blaming Democrats for turning the car-tax issue into a political football, saying that Mr. Warner never came to Richmond to encourage Democrats to resolve the issue.
Although the election is Nov. 6, neither candidate so far has come up with a wedge issue that resonates with voters — such as the car tax for Mr. Gilmore in 1997 or when Republican George F. Allen won the governorship in 1993 by promising to abolish parole.
Without a signature issue, both men focused primarily on the Republican record of the last eight years during their debate.
Mr. Warner continuously questioned where Mr. Earley was the last four years on issues that Democrats believe Mr. Gilmore stumbled badly — like the failed attempt to prevent Michele Finn from removing a feeding tube from her brain-injured husband.
Under the barrage of Mr. Warner's attacks, Mr. Earley did not embrace Mr. Gilmore's record, choosing to explain rather than agree with the governor's decision to intervene in that case. However, Mr. Earley presented himself as the experienced public servant and heir to the Republican record of abolishing parole, enacting the state's education accountability program and phasing out the car tax.
Mr. Earley got in his own shots by pointing out inconsistencies in Mr. Warner's positions now as a candidate and when he was chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia in the mid-1990s — particularly on gun control and charter schools.
Mr. Warner retorted by saying that Mr. Earley also has changed his position on school vouchers, once supporting them but now calling them problematic and advocating a tax-credit plan instead.
Yesterday's debate at times made it difficult to tell the candidates apart: Both opposed any new gun-control laws; both men promised to construct new buildings on state college and university campuses; both vowed to bring teacher salaries up to the national average by the end of the next term; and both said they would pay for those and other programs by "growing the economy."
The two candidates also said they were troubled by news last week that a Norfolk-based lab is creating human embryos specifically for the purpose of conducting research — currently, embryos used are left-overs from fertilization clinics.
Neither man said he opposed stem-cell research, but Mr. Earley went further than Mr. Warner, saying he thinks cells other than embryos — like bone marrow cells — should be tried first.

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