- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Virginia lawmakers said yesterday that a key Republican state senator’s suggestion that more taxes should be raised next year to fund transportation will be dead on arrival.

Many of them agreed that transportation must be addressed but said the state must live within its means to fund roads and other improvement projects.

“From a practical and political perspective, any more tax increases anytime soon are going to be extremely difficult,” said Delegate L. Preston Bryant Jr. of Lynchburg, one of 17 Republicans who defied their antitax caucus to pass a $1.38 billion revenue plan last month.

“We need to watch the ongoing economic recovery and determine the benefits we will receive from it before we tinker with tax rates anymore,” Mr. Bryant said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. also said there is no chance of getting another tax increase passed.

“We will have to live within our means,” the Fairfax County Republican said. “They are limited, but it can be done.”

Their comments came after The Washington Times reported yesterday that Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, thinks the state needs more tax increases so it can pay for transportation. He also said high prices at the pumps will force the legislature to look at ways other than the gasoline tax to fund transportation.

The majority of Republican delegates and antitax groups vow to fight tax increases, but Mr. Chichester has some allies in the Senate.

“We should do something about roads, and you pay for roads with a gas tax,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat. “It’s not going to be a freebie.”

Mr. Saslaw criticized the House Republicans’ “live within our means” argument, and said he would support a gasoline tax increase. “If those people don’t want to raise taxes to pay for roads, there is probably not going to be anything done,” he said.

Last month, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a $1.38 billion revenue plan that boosts the sales, cigarette and real estate taxes but also cuts others. That plan, championed by Mr. Chichester, passed only when the 17 Republican delegates partnered with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown.

Mr. Callahan said yesterday that the state can be creative and fund transportation through public-private partnerships, a concept Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, has expressed interest in exploring.

Meanwhile, some predicted that continued feuds over raising or cutting taxes could land the General Assembly in a budget deadlock again next year. Even though a two-year budget is in place, lawmakers will debate any amendments introduced after state revenue adjustments are reported at the end of this year.

Earlier this month, the legislature passed a two-year, $60 billion budget after an impasse that led to an unprecedented 115-day-long session. The new budget, which takes effect July 1, sets aside more money for education, public safety and health care, but allocates little funding for transportation.

Mr. Chichester and Mr. Saslaw say more taxes are needed to fix transportation problems throughout the state.

But others said the rebounding economy and an expected $300 million budget surplus should lead to tax cuts next year, when all 100 delegates are up for re-election.

“They have an insatiable appetite for money,” said Delegate David B. Albo, referring to the state Senate. “They just got a [$1.38] billion tax increase and there’s an extra $300 million that all of a sudden appeared out of nowhere and now they want more.

“It’s just unbelievable,” the Fairfax County Republican said. “A year ago I would have said there’s no way that a Virginia legislature will ever raise taxes. Now I don’t know what to tell you.”

If the two factions split over the budget again next year, there is no threat that the state government would shut down because the budget already is in place. However, disagreements over taxes and spending could force next year’s session into overtime again.

Several lawmakers said there is no way any tax-increase plan will pass the House.

“It’s a non-starter and it will go nowhere,” said Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli Jr., Fairfax County Republican. “Good luck getting those guys to do this again. It’s appalling to think anyone would consider bumping up the tax burden even higher next year.”

Antitax groups accused Mr. Chichester of crusading for higher taxes. “Senator Chichester … is a serial tax increaser. He is like Ted Bundy — he won’t quit,” said Grover Norquist, president for Americans for Tax Reform.

But Mr. Chichester said this week he doesn’t like advocating for tax increases. “No one likes to raise taxes and after 115 days I can say it was a dish I enjoyed not,” he said.

If delegates propose tax cuts, such as eliminating the estate tax, then other taxes must be raised to offset those cuts, Mr. Chichester said.

“I hope we won’t eliminate it without matching revenue to make up for it,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mr. Chichester proposed a $4 billion revenue plan that raised the state income, gasoline, sales and cigarette taxes.

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