- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

RICHMOND A year ago, Mark R. Warner imagined himself shepherding through the Legislature bills that would define his administration: raising teacher pay to the national average; a road-building program that would end gridlock in Northern Virginia.
What a difference a year makes.
Just 39 days into his term and struggling with a $3.8 billion chasm in the state budget, the governor began his most defining initiative last week an appeal to lawmakers and voters to raise taxes.
"There have been some sleepless nights," Mr. Warner said of the succession of ever more distressing reports of the budget shortfall he took over along with the keys to the office when he was sworn in Jan. 12.
Virginia governors are at the height of their political potency at this point in their term and battling for legislation that will endure as a monument to them. Mr. Warner, however, has been pushed into clearing the fiscal wreckage wrought when a big-spending budget runs into hard times.
In seeking legislative approval for a statewide referendum for a half-cent sales tax increase for education, Warner is trying to reverse the anti-tax administrations of his two Republican predecessors, George F. Allen and James S. Gilmore III.
He also pits his considerable financial resources, strategic alliances and organizational skills against the conservative, GOP-dominated House of Delegates and its anti-tax leader from Amherst, Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr.
Mr. Wilkins has made clear his aim is to kill the bill, which would ask Virginians to decide whether to increase the state sales tax from 4.5 percent to 5 percent to help localities build new schools, repair old ones and finance their operations. The bill would also authorize separate regional transportation referendums on a one-half cent sales tax increase for Northern Virginia and a penny for Hampton Roads.
Mr. Wilkins arranged the death earlier this month of a similar bill in the House Appropriations Committee, and the bill Mr. Warner backs is expected to fare no better tomorrow before the House Finance Committee.
"The idea of a broad-based sales tax increase at a time like this when a lot of people are unemployed is just not right," Mr. Wilkins said.
Mr. Warner isn't dissuaded. He has allied himself with a coalition of well-funded and well-connected business and education organizations, which has embarked on a weekend telephone campaign to pressure Mr. Wilkins and the committee members.
By pledging himself to work for the sales tax referendum, the state GOP contends Mr. Warner has broken a campaign promise. In campaign ads, Mr. Warner had backed a sales tax referendum for Northern Virginia but not a statewide vote on a tax increase.
Mr. Warner had been setting the stage for the referendum for weeks, speaking at luncheons and awards dinners and warning that a budget built on the unprecedented years of double-digit economic growth in the late 1990s he calls it a "house of cards" has collapsed.
"I didn't try to get this job, to get this office, and not try to bring about change," Mr. Warner said in an interview. "I believe more than ever in the requirement that we've got to have a well-educated work force and infrastructure to have a great quality of life."
But with the House arrayed against him, Mr. Warner risks squandering his political capital on a doomed issue.

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