- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

Having missed its Saturday adjournment deadline, the Virginia General Assembly will remain in session until tomorrow afternoon, at least, in an effort to reach agreement on a budget for the next two years. After tomorrow, lawmakers could continue to vote (by a two-thirds majority in each chamber) to extend their session until a budget agreement is reached. If the legislature, where Republicans command majorities in both chambers, adjourns without passing a budget, then Democratic Gov. Mark Warner has the authority to extend the session or call a special session. The state is constitutionally required to produce a balanced budget by June 30.

The main stumbling block is the insistence of Mr. Warner and Republican senators, like Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester, on broad-based tax increases. Over the next two years, Mr. Warner wants $1 billion in new taxes; Mr. Chichester and a bipartisan coalition of senators seek nearly $4 billion by increasing income taxes, as well as gasoline, sales and cigarette taxes. The House of Delegates — by far the more conservative of the two chambers of the General Assembly — has agreed to slightly over $500 million more in corporate taxes. Beyond that, the House insists that any deficit reduction come from spending.

To hear Messrs. Warner and Chichester tell it, the House approach would necessitate draconian cuts in services. We’re skeptical, to put it mildly. The current two-year budget is $52 billion; the House would increase this to slightly over $58 billion. It’s difficult to reconcile this figure with the suggestions from the governor, Democratic back-benchers and the Senate Republican leadership that the House budget will do catastrophic damage to education, transportation or other state services.

For his part, Mr. Warner wants $59 billion in spending over the next two years, while Mr. Chichester seeks $62 billion — an increase of more than 20 percent over current spending. Former Gov. Doug Wilder (who now accuses Mr. Warner of breaking his campaign promises not to raise taxes and says he regrets endorsing him) hit the nail on the head at a March 1 news conference, when he joined a fellow ex-governor, Sen. George Allen, to call for a referendum on the tax question. “Don’t you tell me that everything you see [funded from] an almost $4 billion tax increase is a necessity,” Mr. Wilder said. Mr. Wilder knows what he’s talking about. Shortly after Mr. Warner was elected governor in 2001, he appointed Mr. Wilder the head of a commission to make state government more efficient; unfortunately, the Warner administration has appeared more interested in increasing taxes than in implementing cost savings of the type Mr. Wilder proposes.

The current budget battle is but one skirmish in a larger political fight. Attorney Gen. Jerry Kilgore, the likely Republican candidate for governor next year, is strongly opposed to all tax increases and supports the referendum. His likely Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, is a fervent advocate of higher taxes and compares referendum backers to Pontius Pilate, suggesting that both “allowed the crowd to make the hard decision.” Next year’s gubernatorial race is likely to be the decisive referendum on Virginia taxes.

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