- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

RICHMOND — The Virginia legislature, locked in a Republican showdown between House leaders swearing to fight general tax increases and their counterparts in the Senate determined to raise them, spent the first day of an historic special session recycling the budget proposals that created the impasse.

Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who called all 140 legislators back for a special session that started yesterday, sent down his original budget, which includes $1 billion in tax increases and some tax cuts.

A House plan to remove business tax exemptions for industries, including airlines, utilities, telecommunications companies, overseas shippers, railroads and the media, was rushed through committee hearings.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, revived his own plan to raise sales, income and cigarette taxes, though he did eliminate his call for new gas taxes.

Most of the weary lawmakers thought they would be going home yesterday for a short break after 64 days of legislative work, but House Republicans and Democrats could not agree on a recess. Instead, they will reconvene today at 9 a.m. The Senate will return tomorrow at noon.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, criticized the governor for resubmitting his budget without taking into account any of the compromises made between the House and the Senate.

“It’s somewhat surprising that after 64 days that the identical document would be sent down to us,” Mr. Hamilton said. “I’d hoped that maybe there would have been some adjustments that show some movement, some recognition [of] the efforts that we were trying to make.”

Later in the day, Mr. Hamilton reintroduced an identical version of his own House bill that repeals business tax exemptions, raising an estimated $561 million in new revenue.

House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, Chesterfield County Democrat, said the actions were a waste of taxpayer money.

“You’re asking us to pass a bill that’s still warm,” Mr. Hall said. “They didn’t ask for us to come back here and do the same thing all over again. They asked us to come back here and do what we didn’t do good enough.”

Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax County Democrat, also criticized yesterday’s lack of a breakthrough. “We’re going to go right back to where we were,” she said.

In the Senate, Mr. Chichester’s two-year budget bill resurfaced, this time stripped of its original gasoline tax increase that would have produced transportation funding of $800 million per year — the senator’s attempt to move closer to the House position.

“Senate Finance removed half the difference between the House and Senate budget,” he said.

Original critics of Mr. Hamilton’s tax-exemptions plan again testified yesterday before the House Finance Committee, which approved the plan 12-9 and sent it to the full House.

Virginia Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Steve Haner said the bill was harmful to business.

“This is the single most ill-considered, antibusiness piece of legislation to come before the assembly in 20 years,” he said.

Others against the bill said it would cost jobs and that the businesses would pass the burden on to consumers.

After the hearing, lobbyists and others could be heard saying, “It’s deja vu all over again,” and “Just like ‘Groundhog Day,’” referring to the film in which the same day repeats again and again.

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