- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

RICHMOND Gov. Mark R. Warner opened the door yesterday to statewide sales-tax increases, calling for a referendum that would fund both transportation and education projects as the House of Delegates narrowly passed a Northern Virginia sales-tax referendum for transportation.
"I've been supportive of transportation [referendums] on a regional basis, and I continue to be," Mr. Warner said. "But I think that the size and extent of the transportation shortfall has raised the possibility that [statewide] transportation ought to be addressed as well."
Mr. Warner's most vocal support for the issue to this point comes amid his ordering an audit of the Virginia Department of Transportation and an announcement Monday that the state was $3.8 billion in the red through 2004. A revised $10 billion, six-year road-building plan will have about $2 billion less in construction projects.
The Democratic governor also expressed support for a statewide education referendum and the possibility of having both issues "in a single [ballot] question." Some members of his party have criticized Mr. Warner for not taking the lead role on the referendum issues.
"These are statewide problems. I think that bears some serious consideration. I think that we ought to let the voters of Virginia have a say on how we solve our problems,"he said.
After briefing reporters about the referendum, the House passed a bill sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairman John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican, that would raise the 4.5 cent sales tax by a half-cent to pay for about $2.5 billion worth of specific road and transit projects over the next 20 years. Only a majority of voters in the nine localities in the region is needed to approve the measure, which could be before them this fall.
Protesting the exclusion of an education component, all but three Democrats voted against Mr. Rollison's bill, which passed 52-47.
The three Democrats who voted for the measure were from southwest Virginia and needed Mr. Rollison's support for the $1.3 billion four-lane Coalfields Expressway they want built. Some Republicans and Democrats oppose the project because they say only 10,000 vehicles a day will use the expressway, while some two-lane roads in Northern Virginia average more than 20,000 vehicles a day.
The Senate Finance Committee also passed a measure 9-7 that would put on the ballot this fall a referendum to increase the sales tax statewide by a penny to pay for transportation and education projects.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Manassas Democrat, does not have a specific list of projects for transportation and also would give local school boards control over how the money is spent.
But with changes to the six-year plan and the likelihood that some parts of the state will go years without any new construction projects, Mr. Warner said a statewide sales-tax referendum might be the only way to fund deleted projects.
Mr. Rollison, however, said referendums are "best left on a regional basis."
Several Republicans in the House, including Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, adamantly oppose an education referendum because of concerns that rural, less-affluent areas of the state would get fewer dollars than wealthy areas of the state through existing distribution formulas.
"The speaker has expressed his concerns about the disparity issue, and I want to make sure there is some statewide solution to education that is as fair as possible with all communities involved," Mr. Warner said.
"We've got problems in terms of education that are not just in Northern Virginia. It cuts across the whole state."

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