- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2004

The Virginia General Assembly convenes Wednesday, and the state budget and tax reform will take center stage during the 60-day session.

Many predict that the session will be grueling, with battles raging between Republicans and Democrats over Gov. Mark Warner’s tax plan that proposes to raise $1 billion in tax increases and his two-year, $60 billion budget that includes $2.3 billion in spending increases.

Republicans, who control both chambers, have been slamming the Democratic governor, saying he broke a campaign promise not to raise taxes. Key lawmakers say they will propose their own budgets that don’t depend on new taxes to balance the state’s finances.

At least 51 delegates and 21 senators must vote in favor of the budget for it to pass. If the General Assembly fails to adopt Mr. Warner’s plan, the session could be extended until lawmakers reach a consensus.

Mr. Warner spent much of the holiday season touting his plan, which would create $1 billion in additional revenue in the next two years by increasing 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 tax on groceries from 4 percent to 2.5 percent and fully phase out the car tax by 2006.

His plan also would eliminate some loopholes that allowed 21 of the state’s top 50 corporate employers to avoid paying income taxes in Virginia in 1999, Mr. Warner said. But critics of the plan argue that the changes might discourage businesses from relocating to Virginia.

Mr. Warner’s budget calls for $2.3 billion in new spending, mostly for education, and health and human services. Most of the increase comes from federal outlays that weren’t listed in previous budgets. The budget includes $180 million in savings and reductions.

Republicans say the governor’s tax plan will hurt the working poor, but Mr. Warner asserts that 65 percent of Virginia residents will pay less if his plan were implemented in 2006.

“I know some skeptics will say that these financial reforms cannot be accomplished and that we will revert to the same old political divisions,” Mr. Warner said last month when presenting his budget and tax plan to the legislature. “Together, I know we can prove the skeptics wrong.”

Mr. Warner’s goal is to make the state’s tax code more fair, to keep the state’s commitment to education and to preserve the state’s fiscal integrity, he said.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said he will consider Mr. Warner’s plan but expects the General Assembly to propose budget amendments that will eliminate the governor’s proposed tax increases.

“I am fearful that if we substantially raise taxes, we will harm the economic recovery in Virginia,” Mr. Griffith said. “His plan has a lot of quick fixes, but I’m not sure it will help us in the long term.”

Delegate Harry J. Parrish, Manassas Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee, is expected to present a bill that would increase the state’s gasoline tax to 24 cents per gallon, up from its current 17.5 cents. The extra revenue — about $300 million — would go to the state’s transportation-construction fund. A similar bill is likely to originate in the Senate.

Mr. Warner, who didn’t include a gas-tax increase in his budget, says he hopes the legislature considers that his plan would provide for transportation before approving this increase.

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls says the governor will spend most of his time in the coming months lobbying for his plan.

Mr. Warner will travel throughout the state, meeting with legislators, interest groups and voters to tout his plan, Miss Qualls said. “He’ll be taking his case to the people,” she said.

On other issues, lawmakers have submitted nearly 3,000 requests for bills to be drafted. Those bills range from creating tougher gun laws and stiffer drunken-driving penalties to raising the minimum wage and prohibiting recognition of homosexual civil unions.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican, has sponsored a bill that would bar Virginia from recognizing civil unions between same-sex partners from other states. Mr. Marshall has drafted the Virginia Defense of Marriage Act, which would prohibit the state from offering persons in civil unions the same benefits it does to married persons. Current law bars the state from recognizing same-sex “marriages.”

The General Assembly also will welcome 15 new members who won seats in November’s elections.

Among the new faces from Northern Virginia are former Delegate Jeannemarie A. Devolites, Fairfax Republican, who moves to the Senate, where she will represent parts of Fairfax County and Fairfax City, and Alexandria Democrat Adam Ebbin, the state’s first openly homosexual legislator, who takes over the seat long held by Delegate L. Karen Darner, a Democrat who decided not to seek re-election last year.

Meanwhile, some of the state’s top lawmakers will begin jockeying for position in the 2005 elections, including the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

After the session opens Wednesday, Mr. Warner will deliver his State of the Commonwealth address at 7 p.m.

The General Assembly is set to adjourn March 13 and reconvene April 21 to review any bills that Mr. Warner vetoes. The legislature can override the vetoes by a two-thirds vote.

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