- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

RICHMOND Republican delegates yesterday said a bill that would allow a statewide referendum on raising sales taxes to fund school and road construction will likely die in the House Finance Committee on Monday.

"I just know it is dead," said Delegate Jeannemarie A. Devolites, Vienna Republican and House majority whip.

"If this gets to the floor, it will be a blood bath on funding. … I don't see this passing," said Delegate David B. Albo, Springfield Republican, noting that many new delegates have pledged publicly not to raise taxes.

Yet the bill sponsored by state Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat points up the divide between Republicans, who control both houses in the state legislature, on the issue of raising taxes. Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, on Wednesday endorsed the bill, which the Senate had overwhelmingly approved earlier this month. It moves to the House Finance Committee on Monday.

House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins yesterday said he would send the bill to the Appropriations Committee if it survives the Finance Committee, even though he thinks its goals exceed the authority of the General Assembly.

"School construction is not a state responsibility. It never has been," said Mr. Wilkins, Amherst Republican.

Mr. Albo said he does not think the county officials have been doing their job to ensure school construction is completed. "Why do they need me to do their dirty work for them? They can go raise taxes for themselves," he said.

The bill incorporates segments of other bills sponsored by several Republicans to address the transportation concerns in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, as well as the statewide education crisis. In Northern Virginia, the state sales tax would be raised by 1 percent, to 5½ percent.

Mrs. Devolites noted that the plan originally called for a referendum only for Northern Virginia voters to raise their taxes for transportation, saying the idea has spiraled out of control.

"This was originally an area solution to a big problem," she said. "But it has been politicized to statewide politics and ultimately reduces the amount of revenue to Northern Virginia."

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith said one of the bill's problems is that it does not do enough for the entire state.

"Every Republican will have to make up their own mind," the Salem Republican said. "But it will be difficult to come up with a formula that satisfies all regions of the state."

Mr. Wilkins, who opposes the bill and any other measure that would require a statewide referendum for a tax increase, said he does not expect a showdown over the legislation, even as he disagrees with the governor and other Republicans on the issue.

"It's not this epic battle," the House speaker said. "I know [the press] would like something else to write about. I am sorry we can't accommodate."

Delegate Jay O'Brien, Fairfax Republican, said he supports the idea of a referendum for education and transportation funds, but cannot back the Colgan bill.

"I am a no-tax guy," Mr. O'Brien said. "So when I go into the privacy of the voting booth, I'd vote against it. But I probably would not [campaign against it], because I think everyone understands these issues. I don't think they need Jay O'Brien to explain it."

Some lawmakers did not seem concerned that they would break their no-new-taxes pledge in voting for the referendum.

"It's not a tax increase. It's a referendum that allows the voters to decide," said Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican. "Even Grover Norquist says it's not a violation of the no-new-taxes-pledge."

But Mr. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, yesterday issued a statement saying he opposes any efforts to raise taxes, through direct legislation or ballot initiatives.

"Any effort to raise taxes is a violation of the pledge," Mr. Norquist said. "Changing state law to put a tax increase on the ballot is clearly an effort to raise taxes."

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