- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

RICHMOND (AP) A growing sense of desperation about public school construction and transportation funding could persuade the General Assembly to let voters decide whether to increase sales taxes, some suburban lawmakers say.
As of Friday, the deadline for submitting bills, legislators had introduced 11 measures that would allow Virginians to vote on referendums on increasing sales taxes to pay for less-crowded roads and improved schools.
The issue has become a major theme of this year's legislative session.
Many legislators, business groups and education leaders think the mood has shifted from four years ago, when voters elected Republican James S. Gilmore III, who as governor promised to eliminate the personal-property tax on cars. He reduced the tax 70 percent during his term.
Some say four years of suffering in slow commutes have made Northern Virginians favorable to paying more for new roads, bridges and rail lines. Others say the sights of broken-down schools and students attending class in trailers have galvanized parents for a tax increase.
With Virginia's budget billions of dollars out of balance, state officials say, there is little hope that road and school projects will get a boost anytime soon. One study shows statewide spending on school construction is short by $6.8 billion to $8.2 billion. Gov. Mark R. Warner said last week that transportation construction during the next six years is underfunded by $2.4 billion.
Increasing the sales tax, now 4.5 cents per dollar, by as much as a penny could raise $240 million a year in the suburbs. Borrowing against that money could mean $2 billion for Northern Virginia.
"We are in such a crisis with the budget," said Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican. "There will not be a single penny left to build the roads and transit we need or to build the classrooms and renovate."
But not everyone agrees it's time to allow referendums to increase sales taxes.
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, opposes a referendum for education, saying it would increase funding for rich, populous school systems at the expense of poorer ones.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw has vowed to kill a referendum on transportation unless the one for education passes. The Fairfax legislator did just that last year, forcing proponents of both measures to return to Richmond for another try during the current session.
Conflicts remain between those advocating a referendum for transportation and those promoting one for education. Both sides say they expect to hash out their differences at a meeting of Northern Virginia lawmakers scheduled for today.
Even if the measures do get out of the General Assembly, they are not guaranteed to pass in the referendums.
Education leaders cite a statewide poll that has found that 65 percent would vote for the tax increase. Transportation interests report similar majorities for a transportation sales-tax increase.
But others say it will be difficult to pass a tax increase, especially if the recession continues when voters go to the polls in November.

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