- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

RICHMOND A House of Delegates committee voted to grant Northern Virginians unique and unprecedented taxing power yesterday when it approved two bills that would allow local voters to increase the state sales tax in nine nearby jurisdictions by a penny.
The first bill approved by the House Finance Committee was a proposal to raise the 4.5 cents sales tax by a half-cent for transportation projects in Northern Virginia. The second bill permitted another half-cent increase to pay for school construction projects.
The two half-a-penny tax increases would not be imposed on the rest of Virginia.
Also, any tax increase must be approved by voters in five of the nine jurisdictions covered by the bills. The jurisdictions are Arlington, Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax counties and the cities of Manassas, Manassas Park, Fairfax City, Falls Church and Alexandria.
Opponents said it was bad policy to raise taxes during an economic downturn, and that by focusing on Northern Virginia, lawmakers were forgetting other parts of the state also have transportation problems.
The transportation bill was sponsored by Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican. It passed by a vote of 17-to-5, which surprised even Mr. Rollison. "I expected a much closer vote," he said.
Mr. Rollins defended his bill by saying, "All regions of the state do not have the same highway consequences that we have." Mr. Rollison said the region was close to running afoul of the federal Clean Air Act, which could result in the loss of federal transportation dollars.
The statewide education-referendum bill, sponsored by Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, was expected to lose by as many as four votes. Yet it squeaked out of the very conservative committee 12-10.
The change of heart on the education-referendum measure came when an amendment to exclude food from the taxable items was approved. At least two votes, those of Delegates Mitchell Van Yahres, Charlottesville Democrat, and Kenneth R. Melvin, Portsmouth Democrat, were picked up by adding the amendment.
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, is against the statewide education referendum and reluctantly supports Mr. Rollison's bill. He ordered both bills be sent to the House Appropriations Committee before going any further.
The committee is expected to hold a hearing on them tomorrow morning with the full House voting on the measures by the end of the week.
If Mr. Rollison's bill becomes law, the transportation-referendum would raise about $120 million a year to pay off $2.5 billion worth of projects ranging from road improvements along Interstate 66 to new rail cars for the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail line.
Not everyone was happy that either bill got out of committee. Lawmakers expect the bills to face a skeptical House when they come to the floor.
"It's disappointing to see the party of fiscal discipline give its OK to so much taxing authority," said Delegate R. Lee Ware Jr., Powhatan Republican.
Several members of the finance committee were concerned the education referendum would result in a state of "haves and have-nots" created by a disparity in school funding.
Mr. Dillard disagreed, saying the formulas used to redistribute the money raised by the extra tax on Northern Virginians would actually have richer districts giving money back to poorer areas of the state. Fairfax County would give back about $72 million, he said.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, has come under fire from some members of his own party for not using his bully pulpit to support such referendum proposals. But Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the governor was pleased with the outcome of the vote yesterday.
Miss Qualls also said that announcements this week about a significant drop in revenue for January and a pared-down version of the Virginia Department of Transportation's six-year plan will affect "the discussion on the sales [tax] referendum [bills]."
The Washington Times reported yesterday that tax collections for January were off by about 30 percent and could result in a $325 million to $360 million loss in total revenue, which is far more than administration officials had expected.
"The governor is pleased to see options stay alive in the legislature that would allow voters to choose how they would address their regions' most pressing needs," Miss Qualls said.

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