- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

RICHMOND — Most Republicans, who less than two months ago were fiercely opposed to raising taxes, are now choosing between two tax-increase plans, each devised by the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Conservative Republicans say they are worried particularly by the Senate, whose money committee has proposed raising $3.8 billion in taxes by increasing the gasoline levy, the sales tax and adjusting income-tax brackets.

The conservatives said they fear some of their party members are crossing over to “the dark side” to give the state one last gift — protecting its triple-A bond rating and providing more money to education, transportation and health care.

Privately, lobbyists and politicians say several centrist Republican senators, including John H. Chichester, who authored the $3.8 billion tax plan, are likely to retire before the next election in 2007. Some say if these senators don’t retire in four years, they could lose their seats to more conservative party members at the polls.

“Part of me says this tax increase is so shockingly large that perhaps it’s the last hurrah for some people,” said Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, Fairfax County Republican. “This is not what I’m used to being standard fare for Republicans.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said those lawmakers who vote in favor of either tax increase at the end of the session will be forced to leave politics.

“If you are a state House member, you will not be a state senator. If you are a state senator, you are not going to be a congressman, because for the rest of your life you’ll be running against people who did not violate the antitax increase pledge,” Mr. Norquist said. “Voters are angry.”

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said political insiders expect Mr. Chichester, Senate president pro tempore, to retire in 2007. Sens. Thomas K. Norment Jr., H. Russell Potts Jr. and Charles J. Colgan Sr., the oldest member of the Senate, are also expected to retire that year, Mr. Sabato said. “The assumption is, this is their last term,” he said.

Mr. Norment, Gloucester County Republican; Mr. Potts, Clarke County Republican; and Mr. Colgan, Manassas Democrat, have voted in favor of Mr. Chichester’s tax-increase plan.

Mr. Norquist said both Mr. Chichester’s and Mr. Potts’ days are numbered. Mr. Norquist accused both senators of “lying their way into office” during last year’s election when they told voters they wouldn’t raise taxes if they were re-elected.

The Senate on Sunday released its two-year, $61.5 billion budget that calls for giving more money to education. The budget is larger than the one proposed by Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, in December, and the one proposed by the House.

“The Republican Party of Virginia firmly disagrees with the direction of the Senate’s budget and their demand for massive tax increases,” said Kate Obenshain Griffin, the party’s chairwoman. “The voters will ultimately reconcile the difference between the promises that were made on the campaign trail and the promises that were broken in Richmond.”

However, Mr. Sabato said when the legislature approved large tax increases in the 1960s and in 1986, many Republicans, who supported the increases, did not lose their seats.

Generally, House Republicans are more resistant to tax increases because they are elected to two-year terms, while senators are elected to four-year terms.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Roanoke County Republican, said the House will continue to hold the line on taxes.

“We’re trying to keep Virginia a low-tax state. We think that’s good for jobs,” he said. “We don’t believe that you should raise taxes willy-nilly just because every other state in the union is doing it.”

The House’s plan raises $520 million by eliminating exemptions for businesses and industries. Specifically, it closes exemptions on taxes paid on materials, equipment and parts used by airlines, laundries, utilities, overseas and interstate shippers, gas and oil producers and contractors. The plan was viewed by many businesses and lobbyists as a warning shot.

Some say House Republicans came up with the plan in retaliation after so many businesses and groups including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce endorsed higher taxes and Mr. Warner’s budget plan.

Yesterday, Mr. Warner said it was encouraging that both chambers are talking about changing the tax code. Mr. Warner also said he was concerned that neither budget proposal phases out the car tax, one of the top priorities of his predecessor, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican elected in 1997 in large part on advocating repeal of the car tax.

Instead, both plans leave the car tax phaseout stalled at 70 percent. Mr. Warner had pledged to fully eliminate the tax by 2008.

“We ought to either finish it or change the extent of the obligation,” Mr. Warner said during a conference call from the National Governors Association meeting in the District.

Mr. Chichester, of Stafford County, has been under fire since the session began in January. The 1st Congressional District Republican Committee suggested that he leave the party after he proposed to increase taxes.

Mr. Chichester said he had no intention of leaving the party, and called the committee’s position “embarrassing” to the Republican Party and “offensive” to Republican voters.

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