RICHMOND Virginia lawmakers who supported tax referendums after signing a “no-new-taxes” pledge during last year’s campaigns are suddenly scrambling for political cover.
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, created by Americans for Tax Reform, an influential anti-tax group based in Washington, is a simple, one-sentence promise to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
Virginia lawmakers who signed the pledge, then voted for proposed referendums that could lead to sales-tax or income-tax increases, include Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican; Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, Martinsville Democrat; Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, a Virginia Beach Republican who may run for attorney general in 2005.
The pledge has been around since 1986, and six years ago there was a push by ATR to have state legislators and officeholders sign on. So far this year, 1,247 legislators, eight governors, and 10 other statewide elected officials across the country have signed the pledge. Most are Republicans.
In Virginia, 31 lawmakers have signed the pledge. Twenty of those 18 House of Delegates members and two senators have voted for tax referendums during the current legislative session in Richmond.
Grover Norquist, president of ATR, told Virginia lawmakers last week that their support of proposed statewide tax referendums puts them at odds with the pledge.
“Efforts by elected officials who have signed the pledge to place tax-increase referendums on ballots without an offset provision of greater or equal value violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” Mr. Norquist wrote in a statement.
That news has Republicans in Richmond worried.
“He’s changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Mr. Potts.
Mr. Norquist, Sen. Potts said, is “a liar,” and has misled Republicans by telling them “one thing, then … another.”
Many Republicans said Mr. Norquist indicated last fall, during the gubernatorial campaign, that Republican candidate Mark L. Earley would not be considered in violation of the pledge if he supported the referendums. Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, refused to sign the pledge.
Mr. Norquist said his position was misstated last fall. Ballot measures are fine, he said, if the referendums create a zero-sum gain on taxes by cutting some taxes to offset those that were raised. But that is not what is happening in Virginia, and that is why he spoke out, he said.
“This is deliberately structured to force a tax increase,” Mr. Norquist said. “This is not an effort to poll the people of Northern Virginia to see what they want. It’s a policy to raise taxes.”
Republican strategists and some members said if voters think the pledge has been broken, then there could be political trouble come election time.
“I think it clouds the picture for Republicans who claim to be for small government,” said Delegate R. Lee Ware, Powahatan Republican.
Mr. Ware signed the pledge and has voted against all of the referendum measures. But the disagreements over Mr. Norquist’s position undermine the anti-tax group’s credibility, he said.
“It begins to sound like a ploy,” Mr. Ware said of the pledge. “I think it is certainly inconsistent.”
Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, said he has signed the pledge in the past, but after hearing about Mr. Norquist’s comments, he said he is glad his name is not on this year’s list. The ATR, however, still has Mr. Albo listed as a signer.
Other Republicans said the ATR’s position on referendums shouldn’t affect lawmakers’ votes.
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, said “it doesn’t make any sense” that Mr. Norquist appears to be changing his tune and that the pledge should not impact how members vote.
Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, a Virginia Beach Republican who signed the pledge and supported the referendums, does not think it will hurt his political career.
“I don’t feel like I am betraying my word on the pledge,” Mr. McDonnell said.