- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Gov. Mark Warner and members of the legislative panel formed to restructure Virginia’s antiquated tax laws will meet publicly tomorrow, abandoning plans to hold their first meeting behind closed doors.

Mr. Warner’s office decided yesterday afternoon to open the 10 a.m. gathering at the executive mansion after reports of the closed meeting evoked protests from the House speaker and the state’s attorney general.

“After consultation with legislators on the tax commission, we have mutually agreed to open the meeting,” said Mr. Warner, a Democrat.

House Finance Committee Chairman Harry J. Parrish, Manassas Republican, insisted that meeting with the governor privately to discuss tax reform would have been legal, but relented because the public might perceive it as an effort to decide statewide tax policy in secret.

“It’s probably the moral thing to do, even if it’s not the legal thing,” said Mr. Parrish, who is one of the lawmakers on the commission. “I guess we are just being more ethical this way.”

Tomorrow will be the first time the commission gathers to grapple with the state’s tax code, which has not been amended in 88 years.

The meeting was announced on Mr. Warner’s weekly public schedule, which was released before the Fourth of July holiday last week. Reporters would have been invited to ask questions after the meeting ended.

“This meeting was really about the governor defining some of the parameters [for tax reform] as he develops his legislation,” said Ellen Qualls, the governor’s press secretary.

However, questions arose about whether the closed-door meeting would have violated the state code as it applies to open meetings and the Freedom of Information Act. According to the Virginia Code, any meeting where three or more lawmakers are present is defined as an open meeting and therefore subject to freedom-of-information regulations.

“It looks like it falls under the definition of a meeting,” said Lisa Wallmeyer, assistant director to the General Assembly’s advisory council on the freedom of information.

Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, agreed. “The law requires this to be an open meeting,” he said. “When you have an issue as important as tax restructuring, it should be open.”

Tax reform’s potential to change state and local levies on every Virginia resident has thrust it to the forefront of issues before the 2004 General Assembly. Republicans, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, have criticized Mr. Warner for waiting until after the November legislative elections to detail his tax-reform proposals.

Members of the commission had argued that they were going to meet informally tomorrow and that no serious business would be conducted. The commission is made up of four state senators, six House members, Finance Secretary John M. Bennett and Tax Commissioner Kenneth W. Thorson.

Some had suggested that if the meeting were private, less partisan posturing would occur.

Yesterday afternoon, state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore and House Speaker William J. Howell issued separate statements criticizing the closed-door meeting and called on those involved to change the arrangements.

“I am deeply concerned that the governor and members of the commission would attempt to meet behind closed doors,” said Mr. Kilgore, a Republican. “I urge everyone to rethink their position.”

Mr. Howell, Fredericksburg Republican, agreed.

“I welcome public involvement and public accountability. We should trust the people. After all, they are the ones whose taxes pay the government’s bills,” he said.

The Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association, the group that represents the interests of reporters who cover the state Capitol, also urged Mr. Warner and members of the commission to open the meeting.

“Tax reform is a serious public-policy issue. Closing this meeting, for the political purpose of toning down the partisan rhetoric, as some involved have suggested, is untenable,” association board members wrote in a letter to Mr. Warner and the commission.

Mr. Parrish said he wondered how productive the meeting would be because the media glare would not be too far removed.

“The discussions we have won’t be nearly as good,” he said.

“With a smaller number of people present you have a greater ability to get things done. You can have a more frank discussion with disagreements in a closed meeting.”

However, state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., a member of the commission, said he believes otherwise.

“I don’t have a problem with it being open,” said Mr. Hanger, Augusta County Republican.

“Having it open, I don’t think, is going to hinder our ability to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

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