- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

Gubernatorial candidate and Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch said he would phase out Virginia’s car tax if elected.

Mr. Fitch, a Republican, said yesterday that slashing government waste would free the money to end the tax. The car tax, which lawmakers and political candidates have been vowing to eliminate since 1997, has been frozen at 70 percent for a few years.

Mr. Fitch said his plan would eliminate the tax “within two years” and would cost the state an additional $470 million to $580 million annually. The tax already costs the state more than $900 million per year.

“It wasn’t my promise, but it was made as a promise to Virginians,” he said. “The $400 million is there if we have the fiscal discipline and the courage to eliminate all the wasteful and unnecessary spending.”

Mr. Fitch, who has been the town’s mayor for six years, said that if he were governor, the state could offer 100 percent relief indefinitely because he has found more than $1.5 billion of unnecessary spending in the state’s $63 billion budget.

For example, he would privatize the state-run ABC stores for a one-time savings of $700 million.

Mr. Fitch offered several examples of programs he considers wasteful. One is the department of bedding and upholstery, an entity lawmakers already have eliminated.

Robert P. Vaughn, director of the House Appropriations Committee staff, said the entity is now part of the Virginia Department of Health and that it inspects mattresses only at stores that have received complaints. Mr. Vaughn said he did not have an estimate of how much money is set aside for its functions.

Mr. Fitch also said he would consolidate the departments that deal with treating the mentally disabled. Mr. Vaughn said those departments do not overlap.

Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, questioned Mr. Fitch’s savings estimate, saying many small agencies receive a few million dollars from the state annually so they can disburse federal grants.

If the agencies were eliminated, the state would lose the grants, she said.

Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, was propelled to victory in 1997 on a “No Car Tax” pledge.

The car-tax relief program allows motorists to pay reduced car-tax bills, with the state picking up a percentage of the bill and the motorist paying the rest to the local government. Since 2002, the amount the state pays to local governments has been frozen at 70 percent, leaving motorists to pay 30 percent.

Because the car-tax relief program increases in cost each year as more people buy more expensive cars, lawmakers last year imposed a $950 million cap on the program. Without the cap, the cost of relief would have increased to more than $1 billion.

Recent attempts to jump-start the car-tax relief program have failed. Earlier this year, a measure that would have lifted the cap and raised the tax relief in 5 percent increments failed in the Senate. Last year, plans that would have fully eliminated the car tax either immediately or gradually failed in the House because the proposals included an income-tax increase.

Mr. Fitch will challenge former state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore in the June 14 Republican primary.

The winner of the primary likely will face Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who is unchallenged for his party’s nomination, and Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican who is running as an independent.

Mr. Kilgore has said that if elected governor, he would cap property tax assessments and “fully phase out the car tax.” However, he has not said specifically how he would end the car tax.

Mr. Kaine — who also has proposed a property tax relief plan — has said that if elected, he would be “committed to a fiscally responsible elimination of the car tax.”

Mr. Kaine, who has said he supported the governor’s plan last year to eliminate the car tax, has not provided any details.

Mr. Potts has said that if elected, he would end the car-tax relief program, a measure that has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled legislature.

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