- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

There is good news and bad news in the budget plan proposed by Virginia's new governor, Democrat Mark R. Warner. The good news is that, surprisingly, the governor has reversed himself on the need for raises for state employees in order to keep down an estimated $1.3 billion budget shortfall. He has proposed a salary freeze that would save state taxpayers about $210 million, which is contrary to his campaign promises to state employees and teachers' unions. Another bit of good news is that Mr. Warner has proposed statewide budget cuts of about 3 percent this year, increasing to 7 percent in 2003 and then to 8 percent in 2004. These cuts are actually more than those proposed by former Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore and represent a not-insignificant turnabout in the previously unchecked growth that swelled the size and scope of Virginia's government to octopus-like proportions during the past several years.
The bad news is that, as expected, Mr. Warner has called for a halt to the phase-out of the state's personal property tax on motor vehicles, known more commonly as the car tax. While the much-hated tax has already been chopped down by by more than two-thirds from its initial rate, courtesy of Mr. Gilmore, the last portion will not fade away as planned, if Mr. Warner and other state officials have their way. This seems a near-certainty as most Republican lawmakers have given up on putting the final nail in the car-tax coffin. Mr. Warner has proposed retaining the tax at its current rate at least through 2004, which he says would save the state about $119 million. However, what alarms tax-wary observers is not so much that a small portion of the car-tax will be allowed to linger, but rather that the rate is likely to be pushed back up to the outrageous levels that obtained just a few short years ago, when many Virginians with new or late model cars and trucks were paying hundreds of dollars, even a thousand dollars or more, each and every year. So long as the car-tax remains even at reduced strength it could easily come back in full-throated force when state officials discover they need more "revenue."
That said, Mr. Warner deserves at least some credit for the cuts he has proposed particularly the ones that will cause the red hot anger of the teachers' unions. It was a tough call to make, politically. But it would have been nice had Mr. Warner figured out another way to save the $119 million he anticipates will flow into state coffers as a result of keeping the car tax alive. Leaving that sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Virginia taxpayers, ready to drop at any time, does little to inspire confidence.

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