- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

RICHMOND — Former Govs. L. Douglas Wilder and George Allen yesterday railed on lawmakers for proposing “billions” in taxes that could cripple the economy and hurt Virginians.

“The effort to exclude the everyday citizens from the tax debate has been so successful that the voice of the hardworking taxpayer is hardly being heard in Richmond today,” said Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, during a visit to the state Capitol.

The former governors, along with Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, also called on state lawmakers to let voters decide whether their taxes should be raised.

Mr. Wilder, the first black governor in the country, and Mr. Allen, a Republican now serving in the U.S. Senate, accused Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, and other pro-tax lawmakers of breaking campaign promises not to increase taxes.

The two former governors from opposing parties have never campaigned together, and the rare move yesterday is one more volley in the bizarre back-and-forth match seen during this legislative session.

House and Senate Republicans are split, with the Senate side proposing a $3.8 billion tax increase that House leaders call “mind-boggling.” That plan was rejected by the House. The Senate denounced a House plan that eliminates tax exemptions for businesses.

“The General Assembly can adopt a budget that provides funding for the necessities,” Mr. Wilder said. “Don’t tell me that everything you see [funded from] an almost $4 billion tax increase is a necessity.”

But Mr. Warner and other lawmakers said the former governors and Mr. Kilgore have spoken out too late to create a referendum on tax increases.

“We shouldn’t move to California-style fiscal management, where difficult decisions are pushed off onto the voters,” said Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls. “This is the job of the governor and the legislature to manage the state’s finances effectively.”

Miss Qualls said yesterday’s developments “simply complicate the process where the House and Senate leaders were moving toward a compromise.”

In a separate news conference yesterday, Mr. Kilgore, a Republican who likely will run for governor in 2005, said creating a basic budget without tax increases and then putting the tax increases to a voter referendum seems to be the only solution to avoid government shutdown if the General Assembly fails to pass a budget by June 30.

“The people have a right to be engaged in this debate,” Mr. Kilgore said. “Let all of us vote our conscience.”

He added that if a referendum moves forward, he would campaign against it because he opposes all tax-increase proposals.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who plans to run for governor in 2005, yesterday blasted Mr. Wilder and Mr. Allen for “trying to obstruct” the budget compromise process before it starts.

“Ever since Pontius Pilate allowed the crowd to make the hard decision, people who are afraid to lead have often used popular referenda to avoid their responsibilities,” Mr. Kaine said in a written statement. “The last thing we need is politicians outside the Capitol trying to obstruct the budget conference process before it begins.”

But the former governors said voters must be informed of alternatives to a government shutdown.

“The advocates of higher taxes are saying either you increase taxes by billions of dollars or the state government will shut down,” Mr. Allen said. “That’s simply not true.”

“If advocates of billions and billions of dollars in tax increases really believe these are desirable, they should not fear the people,” he said. “If they really believe it’s right, they should figure the people will endorse the massive tax increases.”

Mr. Wilder also accused Mr. Warner of breaking campaign promises not to raise taxes, and said he now regrets endorsing him for governor.

“Had I had any idea he would be embarking upon raising of taxes of Virginians past anything we had promised during that course, I would not have been there with him,” Mr. Wilder said.

He said the voters should not be left out of the process.

Mr. Kilgore said the legislature should come up with a base budget and pass that before the session adjourns March 13. He said lawmakers also should draft another budget that is contingent upon the passage of a June 8 referendum.

Mr. Kilgore also outlined what would happen if there is no budget compromise by the time the fiscal year ends June 30. He said the state could not pay its bills, the courts could not operate and state troopers and prison guards would not get paid. He did not say whether other state employees would get paid.

“Government shutdown is unacceptable,” Mr. Kilgore said. “A shutdown is not an option, governor. Take it off the table today.”

Initial support for a referendum seemed lackluster as the news spread through the Capitol yesterday.

House Speaker William J. Howell said he was giving the idea “careful consideration,” but said he could make some arguments for putting tax increases to the voters.

He said one way to do it would be to pass the House version of the budget and then include a supplemental budget that would be funded only if voters say, “Please tax me more.”

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, opposed a referendum.

“It’s up to us to call the balls and strikes on this one,” the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus said.

If it made it to ballots on June 8, the referendum would need a simple majority, or 50.1 percent, to pass.

Voters recently tackled referendums that involved tax increases at the polls. In November 2002, voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads overwhelmingly rejected transportation referendums that would have raised their sales taxes for regional transportation projects.

Meanwhile, the Warner administration’s tax commissioner said yesterday the math was faulty in the House plan that raises $520 million over two years by eliminating tax exemptions for businesses. Commissioner Kenneth W. Thorson said the actual amount raised would be about $134 million less than House budget writers counted on.

Last week, the House passed a two-year, $58 billion budget that keeps funding for most government services at the same level as last year and calls for no new programs or transportation projects.

The Senate passed a two-year $61.5 billion budget that is based on a plan that raises $3.8 billion by raising the gasoline, sales and cigarette taxes and adjusting income-tax brackets. That budget calls for substantial new spending for transportation and education, and gives more money to state programs than the $59 billion budget proposed by Mr. Warner in December.

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