- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

RICHMOND — Lawmakers, who last week ended a bitter budget debate, already are preparing for the likely battles to come over taxes and funding transportation.

Road improvements and other transportation projects were left mostly unfunded in the two-year, $60 billion budget passed by the legislature on Friday. The budget was built on a record $1.38 billion increase in the state’s sales and cigarette taxes.

Gasoline taxes remained untouched, however, and many lawmakers warned that the debate next year again will turn to funding transportation through some kind of increase.

Early on in this year’s budget debate, the Senate passed a $3.8 billion tax-increase plan, authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican. The plan would have raised the income, sales, cigarette and gasoline taxes.

The Senate later stripped the plan of income- and gasoline-tax increases to reach a compromise with the House.

Mr. Chichester and other key senators said last week they will return to fight.

“I’m disappointed that all our objectives were not reached,” Mr. Chichester said. “We did not reform the tax code as we had hoped, and we did not address critical transportation needs. These are necessary elements for our long-term health. And so we will return another day for the unfinished business.”

Mr. Chichester said he hopes he can count on the support of those lawmakers who this year stood firm that tax increases were needed to pay for services.

“I want to thank those who stood until the very end in pursuit of the Senate’s long-term investment strategy,” he said. “Your vision and your fortitude are a testament to courage and a commitment to Virginia’s future. You will be asked to marshal that strength yet again as we gather to complete the task.”

Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, called the budget and tax plan “a very good first start.”

House Republican leaders said more tax increases don’t have a chance of surviving next year’s legislative session. Delegates are up for re-election in November 2005; senators don’t face voters again until 2007.

“The Senate loves taxes; I think they will come back and ask for them,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Roanoke County Republican. “But it won’t happen. If you take a hard look at transportation, there’s lots of things you can do without raising taxes.”

Seventeen House Republicans defied their party’s antitax leadership and teamed up with Democrats to pass the tax-increase plan. Mr. Griffith said it’s highly unlikely that will happen next year.

“A large number were just worried about not having a budget and the government shutting down,” he said.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who won political victory with the passage of the tax-increase plan, said he was disappointed that the final budget didn’t include the $400 million he had allotted for transportation in his proposed budget.

“Our transportation problems haven’t gone away,” Mr. Warner said, adding that he doesn’t think there will be a special session on how to fund those problems this year.

“There’s always next year.”

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta County Republican, said lawmakers need a “breather” before they can take another look at taxes and spending. But he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the legislature or Mr. Warner calls a special session on the issue before the next session begins in January.

Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax County Democrat, opined on transportation woes before voting in favor of the budget Friday.

“Until we stop looking only at short-term political gain, we will continue to only pay lip service to transportation,” she said.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, told reporters that the state can’t indefinitely ignore highway congestion, particularly in Northern Virginia.

“In Northern Virginia, transportation sticks out in my constituents’ lives every day,” the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus said.

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