- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

RICHMOND The anti-sales-tax-referendum movement is alive and well here, with conservative lawmakers, anti-tax groups and environmentalists fighting efforts that would put a measure on the ballot in the fall calling for tax increases.

Alongside those groups lobbying for referendums that would raise Virginia's 4.5-cent-per-dollar sales tax to pay for transportation and education projects have been individuals and groups who say a tax increase during a recession is not a bright idea.

"Our goal is to spread facts, and the fact that needs to be spread is that this current year's Virginia budget has $8 billion more money than is necessary to cover inflation and population over the last 20 years," said Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance.

Mr. Purves' group is one of the few with a physical presence at the state Capitol, with a lobbyist doling out press releases about why the tax referendum is bad economic policy for Virginia.

But Mr. Purves' and other anti-tax groups' efforts are not in vain, according to the most recent assessment of key votes that will take place tomorrow when the House of Delegates Finance Committee votes on the sales-tax referendum bills.

The education-referendum bill, sponsored by Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, is expected to lose by three or four votes. The transportation-referendum bill, sponsored by Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican, is expected to lose by one vote or in an 11-11 tie.

The education bill would raise the sales tax by a half-cent statewide to pay for school construction and technology projects. The transportation bill would raise the sales tax to 5 cents in Northern Virginia to fund transportation projects.

"There is pressure to vote against these bills," said one Republican strategist who has been keeping a close eye on the referendum bills.

Some of that pressure may be coming from within the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

"I am very disappointed that Republicans are taking the initiative on tax increases," said Delegate John S. Reid, Richmond Republican.

"I tend to oppose tax increases in any way, shape or form, and even in the referendum provision this time I think we must be very careful in the current economic climate" to talk about tax increases, said Delegate Robert D. Orrock Sr., Spotsylvania Republican. "Once we impose a tax, it's there forever."

Mr. Orrock, who sits on the House Finance Committee, has not publicly said how he will vote tomorrow, but vote counters in Republican and Democratic circles peg him as a "no" on all the referendum bills.

Most of the anti-tax referendum groups acknowledge that Northern Virginia needs transportation and education improvements. But with state spending up by 52 percent over the past four years, there is growing uneasiness about a tax increase that would widen the scope of government.

In 1998, Gov. George Allen, a Republican, presented a $36 billion, two-year budget when he left office. Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, presented a $51 billion, two-year budget before leaving office last month.

Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, says spending must be curtailed, with the state facing a $3.5 billion revenue shortfall. He supports some sort of sales-tax referendum for education and transportation.

One of Mr. Warner's key constituency groups environmentalists is not keen on the transportation referendum.

"Throwing billions of dollars at a laundry list of projects and using a regional authority just to build them faster will not solve our traffic problem," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Mr. Schwartz's group is made up of many environmental groups, including the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. They have been knocking on doors here trying to get legislators to vote against any tax increase that would be used only to pay for more road construction.

"Business leaders have pushed this legislation to win money for" projects that are not needed right now, Mr. Schwartz said.

Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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