- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

RICHMOND A state legislator enlisted the help of education advocates in promoting his proposed sales-tax increase yesterday.
Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, said at a news conference that he needs three more votes to get his bill out of the House Finance Committee. The panel is expected to consider the bill tomorrow.
Mr. Dillard is sponsoring legislation to raise the state sales tax to 4.5 percent from 3.5 percent, with half of the money earmarked for education. The rest would go into the general fund and could be used for mental health and the environment, Mr. Dillard said.
Representatives of education, mental health and environmental groups packed the room where Mr. Dillard held his news conference. Mr. Dillard urged them to plead his case to the few undecided committee members.
"Between now and Wednesday afternoon, we've got our work cut out for us," he said.
Delegate Winsome Sears, Norfolk Republican, was irked that Mr. Dillard identified her as one of the swing votes on the committee.
"It causes me to be one of the people that folks target, and I'd rather not be put in that position," she said.
She acknowledged that she is undecided. She said people feel legislators aren't making the best use of the money they already have, and she noted that voters in her region rejected a sales-tax increase for transportation projects in November. Mrs. Sears said she would consider her constituents' wishes on Mr. Dillard's bill.
Even if the bill gets out of committee, it faces an uphill battle in a General Assembly controlled by conservative Republicans who have vowed not to raise taxes. Education advocates said most lawmakers also say they consider public schools a top priority.
"It is time for our legislators to stop talking about their support for education and do something about it," said Jean Bankos, president of the Virginia Education Association.
The VEA is one of a dozen organizations that comprise the Virginia Education Coalition, which held a rally at the state Capitol yesterday. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents also is a member.
"We have a crisis in funding public education," said Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, speaking for VASS.
He noted that a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report said Virginia would have to spend an additional $1 billion in the two-year budget cycle to fully fund its share of basic aid to education. Mr. Hatrick said financially strapped localities are forced to make up most of the deficit.
"We simply must do a better job for children," he said.

An accounting by legislators of gifts they have received during the year includes everything from dinners at fancy restaurants and NASCAR tickets to duck-hunting trips to Louisiana and trips for two to Bermuda.
The gifts, which members of the General Assembly are required to disclose in their annual Statement of Economic Interests, are allowed as long as they are not directly tied to the legislators' stances on bills, and the gifts can reach into the thousands of dollars.
State Sen. Martin E. Williams, Newport News Republican, listed a trip with his wife to Bermuda as a guest of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. The trip was valued at $3,449.
"I disclose everything," Mr. Williams said, adding that he accepts the organization's invitation every year and even was a speaker at the convention in 2002.
Full disclosure, he said, protects against corruption in Virginia.
The senator also acknowledged accepting a bird-hunting trip to Georgia valued at $1,085 from Dominion Resources, and another bird-hunting trip to Texas valued at $700. The latter was paid for by Halliburton, a Dallas-based energy services company.
Mr. Williams, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he wouldn't have accepted the gifts if he thought someone was trying to buy his influence.
A Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, is a participant in a proposal to widen Interstate 81 and pay for it using truck tolls. Mr. Williams' committee, and then the legislature, passed bills allowing tolls on Interstate 81 last year.
"These trips are valuable for relationship building," Mr. Williams said. "You learn what might be important to the General Assembly and to the people of Virginia."
Mr. Williams wasn't the only legislator with lavish entries on his disclosure list. In Bermuda, where he and his wife attended the auto dealers convention, they were joined by Delegate Watkins M. Abbitt Jr., Appomattox independent, and his wife.
Mr. Abbitt, meanwhile, also disclosed accepting a duck-hunting trip in Lafourche Parish, La., from the Virginia Sheriffs Association. That trip was valued at $2,471.
Some legislators filled out the disclosure statements using estimated values of the gifts, while others asked the lobbying groups for exact values of their generosity.
Some gifts required far fewer specifics.
On his disclosure form, Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, listed three gifts received from the Fraternal Order of Police: an apple, juice and a muffin.

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