- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III said yesterday lawmakers who favor raising taxes are “taking the easy way out” instead of setting priorities for the state’s fiscal health.

“You have to begin to set your priorities [instead of] reaching back into the taxpayers’ pocketbooks. That’s taking the easy way out,” Mr. Gilmore told The Washington Times. “[The government] must set priorities, and do what it needs to do without constantly going back to the taxpayer. … You have to watch how the government is managing.”

The former Republican governor’s comments come as a war on taxes plays out during the General Assembly session, with many Republicans split on whether to hold the line on taxes or raise them.

On one end of the spectrum is state Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, who during an antitax rally yesterday criticized his fellow party members who support raising taxes.

Mr. Cuccinelli, of Fairfax County, said the party should be focusing on prioritizing spending, instead.

“I always thought the tax issue was the unifying issue of the Republican Party,” he said.

Another former Virginia governor, U.S. Sen. George Allen, also implored the legislature to resist raising taxes during a visit here a few weeks ago. Mr. Allen voted in favor of President Bush’s tax cuts.

On the other end is state Sen. John H. Chichester, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who has proposed more tax increases than Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat.

Mr. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, has been under fire for weeks, with the 1st Congressional District Republican Committee suggesting he leave the Republican Party. He said he had no intention of leaving the GOP, and called the committee’s position “embarrassing” to the Republican Party and “offensive” to Republican voters.

Mr. Cuccinelli is blasting U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican who came here Friday to advocate higher taxes. The senator said additional revenue is needed to bolster education, transportation, health care and other services to preserve Virginia’s quality of life and protect the state from military base closings.

Mr. Cuccinelli called the senator “irresponsible.”

The senator did not specifically endorse the governor’s tax plan or Mr. Chichester’s proposal.

Mr. Warner’s tax-increase proposal would raise the sales tax from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent and the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents per pack to 25 cents. It also would raise the income tax on households that earn more than $100,000 a year, reduce the 4 percent grocery-sales tax to 2.5 percent and fully phase out the car tax by 2008. Mr. Warner said under his plan, which also eliminates the estate tax for most estates and small farms, 65 percent of Virginians will pay less in taxes.

Mr. Chichester’s plan would boost the sales tax by 1 cent on the dollar, raise the gasoline tax by 3.5 cents, fully eliminate the car tax by next year and reorder income-tax deductions and brackets. His plan also would raise the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents to 35 cents.

Mr. Chichester’s $2.5 billion tax-increase plan will go before the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow, and Mr. Warner’s $1 billion tax-increase plan was rejected by the House Finance Committee last week.

Mr. Gilmore said he was “surprised” by the senator’s pro-tax stance, but added that his position isn’t leading lawmakers to change their opposition to taxes. The senator voted in favor of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, said he was unfazed by the senator’s visit. “Reasonable people can differ,” he said.

Shane R. Ostrowski, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the government must keep taxes low in order for the economy to grow and expand.

“We are very respectful of Senator Warner, but this is not surprising given his support of the transportation tax referenda in 2002,” Mr. Ostrowski said. “If Virginia families must live within their means, then we should expect no less from our government.”

In 2002, the Warners — who are not related — campaigned for sales-tax increases in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads areas to pay for transportation projects. The proposals, which the GOP’s conservative wing opposed, were soundly defeated.

The split within the party is further illustrated by the attendance at two separate rallies that took place earlier this week. Fewer than 100 protesters showed up at yesterday’s antitax rally, while an estimated 600 people and the governor attended Monday’s rally to show their support for raising taxes to fund education and health care.

Mr. Cuccinelli, however, scoffed at the comparison. He said he represents 7.3 million people while those who favor higher taxes represent large lobbying groups.

“On the side of increases are the special interests, many of whom were bused down on the public’s dime for that rally,” he said. “I’m proud of people who work hard and pay taxes, even if they can’t make this rally.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. will present a budget that will be the Republicans’ response to not raising taxes. That budget will include $1.8 billion in revenue growth from economic recovery.

Mr. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican, said his committee will draft the budget that will preserve the state’s triple-A bond rating but not include money for program expansions or new programs.

Mr. Gilmore said spending has gone up since his term ended in 2002 and Mr. Warner took office. “[Governor Warner] is having a lot of trouble managing the budget,” he said.

Mr. Warner had said the Gilmore administration left him with “a mess.” But, Mr. Gilmore accused the governor of skirting responsibility.

“We left a balanced budget for the governor,” said Mr. Gilmore, who in 1998 proposed the car-tax repeal, which has been stalled at 70 percent since 2001 because of the economy. “We did not leave a mess.”

Yesterday in the Senate Finance Committee, Finance Secretary John Bennett introduced the governor’s package, saying there has been no “credible, analytical” evidence that the state can grow its way out of financial difficulty, as tax-increase opponents have argued.

Mr. Warner warned legislators Monday not to shortchange funding for education by “cobbling” together another budget without revamping the state’s antiquated tax system.

The governor later challenged the House to soften its position on tax increases, saying “there’s clearly a battle in the Republican caucus, but there are a lot more acts to play out in this drama.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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