- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

RICHMOND A statewide referendum to raise the sales tax by a half-percent was defeated by bipartisan vote in a Virginia House committee yesterday, sparking Democrats to point a finger of blame at fellow Democrat Gov. Mark R. Warner for not putting up a fight to save the measure.
After the House Appropriations Committee killed the referendum bill 15-10, Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat, said she is beginning to question Mr. Warner's leadership on key issues and legislation, including the sales-tax referendums.
"It's always better when you have leadership from the third floor indicating what he or she might do," Mrs. Byrne. "So far the help hasn't been particularly strong."
All around, it wasn't a good day for the governor. Shortly after his party tore into him for not doing enough to help pass the education-referendum bill, Mr. Warner had to announce grim economic news for Virginia.
He told reporters yesterday afternoon that Virginia faces an additional $315 million shortfall through 2004, in addition to the $3.5 billion shortfall he had earlier announced.
He also said 700 persons would be laid off by June 2003. Another 1,400 jobs will go vacant as people retire or resign. January's shortfall means the budget will come up $3.8 billion short through 2004.
The first public falling out of Democrats yesterday came less than a month after Mr. Warner began his watch as governor.
Democrats were particularly angry that Mr. Warner stayed silently on the sidelines over the weekend while House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, worked the phones, urging delegates to vote against the proposed education sales tax increase, or risk losing their coveted seat on the appropriations committee.
The governor didn't make a friend on the Republican side of the aisle, either. Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, who authored the sales tax referendum bill, said Mr. Warner should have done more to save the bill.
He also was not pleased that Mr. Wilkins put pressure on fellow delegates to vote against him.
"That was obviously the deciding factor, there's no question about that," said Mr. Dillard.
Mr. Dillard's bill would have raised the state sales tax by a half-cent to 5 cents to pay for school construction, but Mr. Wilkins and other Republicans were concerned there would be a disparity in the way the annual $355 million in new revenue would be distributed across the state.
"I would like the governor to get out in front of this thing either way. I would like him to come out and take a position," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Manassas Democrat, who has his own version of an education-referendum bill coming before the Senate Finance Committee today.
Mr. Warner defended himself by saying that more "chapters" will be written on the subject of referendums by the time the General Assembly leaves here March 9.
"I have expressed my views repeatedly that I think people ought to have a say, that people ought to have a say on how we fix our problems in transportation and education," Mr. Warner said. "The question on how we formulate that those are the conversations we're having right now."
Mr. Warner said that his first priority is to fix and balance the budget, and that tax increases are "part of the ongoing conversation we are going to have with the people of Virginia."
The Appropriations Committee, though, did endorse 23-2 a bill that would allow Northern Virginia to increase its sales tax by a half-cent for $2.5 billion worth of specific transportation projects.
Mr. Warner has been less silent on a transportation-referendum bill as it was a cornerstone of his campaign's transportation plan for Northern Virginia. Mr. Rollison's bill now goes to the full House, where a tight vote is expected. The measure's sponsor, Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican, thinks he has the votes to get it out of his chamber.
If it doesn't survive, both Republicans and Democrats in Northern Virginia will likely have more to say about the governor's ability as a consensus builder.
Some Northern Virginia Democrats said again yesterday that without an education component to a referendum, chances are slim any referendum measure will be on the ballot this fall.
"It's not looking real good right now," said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. Mr. Saslaw has vowed that any transportation-referendum bill sent over from the House would be amended to include an education element for Northern Virginia, which would kill the bill, just as it did last year.
Delegate Robert D. Hull, Fairfax Democrat, said he hopes Mr. Warner will be more assertive in the referendum debate if the governor wants to see a bill get to his desk.
"Certainly it helps whenever the governor comes and takes a position and lets people know what their position is," Mr. Hull said. "Whenever a governor is able to put his prestige on the line, I think people react to that."
Mr. Hull noted that in the early 1990s when Democrats ruled both chambers and Republican Sen. George Allen was governor there was no question where the executive branch stood on issues.
"When we had the majority and George Allen was governor, he let you know. He would say, 'These are the bills that I am backing,' and he made no bones about where he stood," Mr. Hull said.


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