- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

From combined dispatches

With a computerized slide slow, easel and blue marker for props, Gov. Mark Warner embarked on a political campaign of sorts yesterday, as he sought to win Virginians’ support for his far-reaching plan to overhaul the state’s tax code.

Standing behind a banner that read, “A Commonwealth of Opportunity Plan” and “Fair Taxes. Quality Schools,” Mr. Warner appeared before a lunchtime crowd of about 100 mostly Democratic supporters at the Italian Cafe in Falls Church. The stop was one of several for the governor, who also made appearances at a fire station in Roanoke and a diner in Virginia Beach.

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work,” Mr. Warner said, as he pitched a plan announced in Richmond on Monday that would generate $1 billion over the next two years by increasing taxes on shoppers, smokers and the state’s wealthiest residents.

The governor also pledged that his tax-increase plan was also a tax cut for many residents.

“If there is one thing I want you to remember,” he told the crowd while they dined on chicken and salmon, “it’s that under this plan, 65 percent of you will pay less.”

Meanwhile in Richmond, Mr. Warner’s Tax Reform Commission, a legislative panel created to recommend reforms to the state’s early-20th-century tax structure, effectively dissolved with no consensus.

“This is the way of the world: not with a bang, but with a whimper,” Delegate Leo C. Wardrup Jr., Virginia Beach Republican, said as the commission adjourned its November meeting with no agreement on when or even whether to meet again before the General Assembly convenes in January.

Left unresolved before the panel of 10 lawmakers were the rough outlines of two commission members’ reform proposals.

With the legislative panel now on the sidelines, Mr. Warner’s proposal and the $1 billion in additional money it would generate for the state is the sole focus of debate on tax reform, the issue that will dominate the 2004 General Assembly.

Commission members agreed that the panel would not yield a comprehensive report representing their consensus after slightly more than four months of work. Instead, the commission will submit late next month or early January findings that will include ideas proffered by individual members.

In Falls Church, Mr. Warner repeatedly used the words “fair” and “fiscally conservative” to describe his tax plan, explaining that while the state’s sales tax would go up from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent, the food tax would be reduced from 4 percent to 2 percent.

And while the governor said taxpayers who make more than $100,000 a year would see their income-tax rate jump to 6.25 percent, from 5.75 percent, he also proposed income-tax breaks for many residents — especially lower-income workers.

Most of those in the Northern Virginia crowd were receptive to Mr. Warner’s plan, saying they favored higher taxes if it meant avoiding deeper cuts to state services.

“I think people are willing to pay taxes as long as it’s fair,” said Tom Clinton, the commissioner of the revenue for Falls Church, echoing the sentiments of many in attendance.

Others were more restrained, worrying especially about the prospect of a higher sales tax.

“It absolutely concerns me,” said Michael Curtin Jr., a Virginia representative of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. Mr. Curtin said he worried that even a relatively small sales-tax increase could make many lower-income residents think twice about dining out or going to the store.

“But I believe it’s fair, because, ultimately, it applies to everybody,” he said.

Mr. Warner also used his appearance to stress that his plan would benefit public and higher education, but he steered away from specifics, leaving some educators to question how successful the plan would be at improving funding for the Standards of Quality for public education and addressing enrollment growth in the schools.

“Education funding in Virginia needs a fresh look,” Falls Church School Board Chairman Ruth Brock said, adding that while she wasn’t against Mr. Warner’s plan, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference, either. “If it doesn’t get worse, we’ll be grateful,” she said.

The governor’s staff has said yesterday’s trek across the state would likely be the first of many appearances for Mr. Warner as he looks to convince Virginians — many of whom traditionally oppose higher taxes — that his plan is the best fix for the state’s ailing financial health. The public’s support also could be critical for Mr. Warner if he hopes to win over Republican legislators, who control both chambers of Virginia’s legislature.

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