- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

RICHMOND The chance that any sort of tax referendum will go before Northern Virginia voters this fall seems all but dead as lawmakers in the House of Delegates and Senate yesterday passed competing versions of referendum bills, saying there is little room for compromise.
The Senate approved a bill 31-8 that would allow voters statewide to increase the 4.5-percent sales tax by a half-percent to pay for education needs. Under the same measure, Northern Virginia residents could vote to add another half-percent to pay for $2.3 billion worth of transportation projects.
The House, however, avoided any type of statewide measure. By a 54-45 vote, members approved a bill that could lead to a referendum on a one-quarter to one-half percent increase in Northern Virginians' income tax to pay for school construction.
Like the Senate bill, the House version also includes the half-percent sales-tax referendum for transportation for the region. If any of the referendums are enacted, they would be on the ballot Nov. 5.
Each chamber rejected the other's proposal last night, sending the bills to a conference committee. Negotiators from each chamber will try to hammer out the differences beginning today in a closed-door session.
But there may not be much to agree on, members said, especially with Gov. Mark R. Warner repeating yesterday his desire for a statewide referendum to pay for education needs.
"I think the debate is moving forward. We have, it seems, acknowledgement from most parties that we have unmet needs in education," Mr. Warner told reporters at an impromptu news conference. "Some would argue just in Northern Virginia. I believe we have unmet needs statewide in education."
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, is vehemently against any statewide sales-tax referendum for education, saying it would widen the gap between rich and the poor school districts in the state.
Mr. Warner said he is optimistic that a deal can be reached on the referendums, but conceded that he has a "challenge to continue to convince the legislators and others that the unmet needs in education are not just in Northern Virginia."
More than $105 million would be raised in Fairfax County alone if the income-tax increase were approved. Some Democrats in the House said it was not fair that Northern Virginia with a median income of roughly $90,000 would be able to increase its education spending, while other parts of the state would have to make do with what money they received from the state.
"Is that the only place in the state that needs money for school construction or education?" Delegate Lionell Spruill Jr. asked fellow members during debate. "What about the rest of us?"
Mr. Spruill, of Chesapeake, was one of seven Democrats who voted against the House version of the referendum bill.
The lone Northern Virginia Democrat who voted against it, Delegate J. Chapman Petersen of Fairfax, said taxing residents' incomes is not the right approach to take to raise money for education.
He said there is a likelihood that no consensus will be formed on the issue, leaving Northern Virginia legislators nothing to show for voters who do want the referendums.
Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican, said that by keeping the statewide education referendum in play, the Senate was damaging any sort of chance for a transportation referendum for Northern Virginia.
"What we are doing is putting Northern Virginia's interests at risk," Mr. Barry said.
And Sen. Walter A. Stosch, Glen Allen Republican, said passing the bill with a statewide referendum component not only avoids long-term questions about funding public schools, but would end up being defeated by the House.
"It is almost impossible to predict that it would be successful," Mr. Stosch said. "It's too convenient, too alluring for … the quick fix to raise [the] sales tax statewide."
Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat, said the disparity would not worsen because Northern Virginia would give back much more to the state than it took in from any sales-tax increase.
"We're used to handing over our money to educate all the children in the commonwealth," Mrs. Byrne said.

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