- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

RICHMOND Lawmakers in key financial committees proposed tax and fee increases yesterday in their 2004 budget to relieve the state's financial crisis.
Among the proposals submitted in House and Senate committees were a tax increase on alcohol and a rise in the cost of driver's licenses to help restore public services cut by the state.
The estimated cost of restoring the services during the next fiscal year is $52 billion.
Lawmakers in both chambers have until Tuesday to debate and vote on the bills. Those that pass in the House or Senate are given to lawmakers in the conference committees. Members then meet with members of Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's administration to try to negotiate an agreement by Feb. 22.
"None of this is sweet," said Senate finance Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican.
The cost of a standard license would rise to $20 from $15, a commercial license would rise to $35 from $30 and the cost for renewing a suspended or revoked driver's license would jump to $45 from $30.
The additional money would go toward restoring services cut in October at Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Quite simply, the daily lives of our citizens were made unnecessarily difficult by the DMV reduction actions," said Delegate John A. Rollison III, Woodbridge Republican and chairman of the transportation subcommittee on appropriations.
The financial committees recommended reopening the 12 closed DMV branches and rehiring employees. However, House members want the agency fully restored, including reopening the branches on Wednesdays, while Senate lawmakers want a more limited restoration of services.
Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, chairman of the transportation subcommittee on finance, said the money for the Wednesday reopenings been put elsewhere and that this was the best lawmakers could do.
"Given the monies that we were provided with and the directions that we have, you are going to see the closest thing to full service that we can find today restored as quickly as possible," said Mr. Hawkins, Chatham Republican.
The House Appropriations Committee recommended raising the tax on alcohol by 2.4 percentage points, which would generate about $12.3 million in annual revenue. The money would go toward restoring funds eliminated in Mr. Warner's budget for services to mentally disabled adults.
Negotiations between Republicans and Democrats yesterday highlighted some of the tension that has underscored the 2003 session. Though lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed their amendments, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee questioned several amendments.
Democrats objected to eliminating money from the Project Discovery education program, created to keep at-risk students in high school so they can attend college. The program cost $849,060 last year.
"I think a lot of people don't recognize the importance of this program," said Delegate J. Paul Councill Jr., Franklin Democrat.
Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican, said guidance counselors and teachers can provide the same services.
"It's a noble program, but I'm not quite sure what it has to do with helping you get into college," he said.

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