- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

RICHMOND Gov. Mark R. Warner yesterday held a closed-door meeting with a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers to discuss which of several sales-tax-referendum bills would have the best chance of passing in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Mr. Warner, a Democrat, also gave a firm commitment to supporting a state-wide tax-referendum bill that, if passed, would raise the state sales tax by one-half percent to 5 percent to pay for school construction and technology needs.
"There isn't any question that a statewide referendum, as far as education is concerned, is what he's interested in," said Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican and sponsor of the bill.
Mr. Warner said on WTOP radio's "Ask the Governor" Tuesday that he "may weigh in" on the tax-referendum issue and hinted that he preferred Mr. Dillard's bill.
An estimated $377 million would be raise by the referendum next year if it gets on the ballot and passes in November. Through 2004, it could raise about $438 million.
Lawmakers have been pressuring Mr. Warner to take a stronger position on the sales-tax-referendum bills. There are 11 bills calling for a raise in the state sales tax to pay for education, transportation or both, with nine of the measures putting the decision before voters.
Yesterday's gathering was a good starting point to craft a strategy for how to sell the tax referendums to reluctant legislators and the public, according to participants at the meeting, which included sponsors of the bills and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat.
But any bill that comes to the floor of the House of Delegates will have trouble, senior Republican lawmakers said.
"I just don't know the sense of raising taxes when a lot of people are out of work," said Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican.
Mr. Wilkins said he is still concerned a statewide education referendum would create a disparity in the amount of money rural and less-affluent areas receive.
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, said Mr. Warner and fellow legislators should not leave it to voters to raise taxes if they feel so strongly that more money is needed to pay for education and transportation.
"They don't want to push the button themselves, they want somebody to push the button for them," Mr. Marshall said. "Frankly, if this has so much support, I think a referendum is a waste of time and the members should just vote and step up and raise their taxes which I don't support."
A House Appropriations subcommittee meets today to examine all referendum bills presented.
One participant in yesterday's meeting said they also discussed the timing of the referendums, with some lawmakers uneasy about the possibility of tax increase when the state is in a recession.
"We talked about whether we do this all at one time, whether we should do it at different times," one legislator said.
"We didn't try to put a deal together," said Sen. Martin E. Williams, Newport News Republican and sponsor of a bill that would allow voters in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to raise the sales tax by 1 percent to pay for transportation projects.
Mr. Williams said the governor listened to all of the legislators' concerns.
"He's just trying to get his arms around what we are trying to do," Mr. Williams said.

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