- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

RICHMOND — A group of House Republicans who think tax reform or higher taxes might help solve the state’s budget problems are being pressured by the strong antitax leadership to keep quiet and vote along party lines.

About 15 Republicans, including Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax County Republican, tried to meet last week to discuss flexible solutions to the state’s budget. But House Speaker William J. Howell reportedly interrupted the meeting, which ended after a “frank” discussion took place among the delegates.

“We wanted to see if we could have some influence on the outcome of the budget by taking a more moderate position,” Mr. Dillard said yesterday. “A small group of antitaxers [is] driving the show.”

He said yesterday the “hard-core” antitax group “intimidated” those delegates who showed up for the meeting. There are 61 Republicans in the House.

Mr. Dillard said Mr. Howell’s attitude seemed to be “how dare 15 moderates get together” when he interrupted the group’s impromptu meeting. Mr. Dillard said he was frustrated that groups such as the Conservative Caucus and the Cost-Cutting Caucus are encouraged to meet, while those who disagree with the majority are discouraged.

Mr. Dillard, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, has supported raising taxes to fund education this year. He was bumped off the list of handpicked budget negotiators this session after serving as a participant for the last few years.

Mr. Howell refused to comment when contacted for this article yesterday. He told The Times he could be of “no help” commenting on the story, but he said he “goes to a lot of meetings.” He also said he didn’t know which meeting The Times was asking about.

Democrats said yesterday they are not surprised by Mr. Howell’s actions.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, said the speaker’s moves aren’t troubling, and that it’s no surprise there is “disarray” in the Republican caucus.

“We all come here with individual consciences and constituents,” said Mr. Moran, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “You are not beholden to the speaker; you are beholden to your conscience.”

Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, Gloucester County Republican, who attended last week’s meeting, said he’s not in favor of general tax increases, but he said something must be done to meet the state’s core needs and give state employees a better pay raise.

Mr. Morgan also said he suppports tax reform. Te tax code has not changed in 60 years, hesaid. Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, has urged all lawmakers to include tax reform in their budget.

“I’m clearly in the minority in my caucus,” Mr. Morgan said. “We’re simply a group concerned we may be taking too hard a line on this issue.”

Mr. Morgan also said the car tax should be fully phased out, but the House budget leaves the car-tax cut frozen at 70 percent for at least the next two years. “We have to find new revenue sources. The whole thing is flawed,” he said.

He said the fee increases included in the proposed House budget are as damaging to the public as tax increases. “We’re fooling ourselves and we’re trying to fool the public,” he said.

There is little pro-tax pressure on the antitax delegates, as the antitax group is in the majority.

Delegate Harry J. Parrish, Manassas Republican, who also attended last week’s meeting, voted for Mr. Warner’s $1 billion tax-increase plan, which was later rejected by the House Finance Committee. Mr. Parrish also proposed a bill to raise the gasoline tax, which was also rejected by the committee.

All the delegates in Mr. Dillard’s group voted in favor a bill that would have eliminated tax exemptions for Virginia businesses.

If the group decides to meet again, the meeting will be “totally public,” Mr. Dillard said. “We’ll call it the ‘Caucus for the Future of Virginia’ or something like that,” he said.

Nine budget negotiators from the House and the Senate have until Saturday — when the General Assembly adjourns — to come up with a balanced two-year budget. They must reach a compromise between the House’s $58 billion budget that meets the state’s basic needs with no general tax increase, and the Senate’s $61.5 billion budget that gives more funding to all state services by raising the sales, gasoline, cigarette and income taxes.

As of last night, the negotiators remained deadlocked. Several of them who met with the governor for a few hours yesterday afternoon refused to answer reporters’ questions about what had transpired during the closed-door meeting. Attending the meeting were Mr. Howell, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. and House Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Lacey Putney.

If the legislature adjourns Saturday without a budget, Mr. Warner could call a special session, or two-thirds of each chamber could vote for a special session or to extend the session by as much as 30 days.

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