- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

RICHMOND — A Senate panel’s inaction yesterday killed a bill that called for eliminating the car tax, despite protests from delegates who said the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus should be used to end it.

The Senate Finance Committee took no action on a bill sponsored by several Northern Virginia legislators that would have unfrozen the car-tax-relief program and eliminated the tax by 2012. The committee’s procedural move, in which no senators were required to vote on the measure, effectively killed the bill.

“When you make promises to the people of the commonwealth, you ought to keep those promises,” said Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William County Republican and the bill’s main sponsor. “The General Assembly has made a promise, and we have not figured out a way to keep that promise, and I think we have a moral obligation to do that.”

The bill would have lifted the $950 million cap placed on the car-tax-relief program last year and created a new schedule, giving motorists an additional 5 percent of tax relief yearly through 2012. The total cost would have been $1.4 billion, Mr. Lingamfelter said.

The House passed the bill on a 73-21 vote earlier this month.



House leaders said yesterday that they expected the move, because the Senate had opposed the bill since it was introduced.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican. “We’ll keep trying.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. said he was disappointed that lawmakers have yet to make good on their 1998 promise to fully eliminate the car tax.

“The citizens of Virginia hate this tax,” the Fairfax County Republican said. “We ought to do something to get rid of it, if we can afford it. And we can afford it. You wonder why people are cynical.”

Mr. Callahan said that in the next few days, he expects a “rosy” report that will show tremendous revenue growth that adds $150 million to the budget surplus, which already exceeds $1 billion. He said the extra money should be used to end the car tax.

“It’s all Northern Virginia’s revenue,” he said.

Many Northern Virginia lawmakers argue that the car tax is especially unfair to the booming region because more people there buy more expensive cars.

James S. Gilmore III, a Republican who was elected governor in 1997 by an overwhelming majority on a promise to fully eliminate the car tax, said last week that he is “certain Virginians will one day have a zero bill.”

“Despite years of trying to vote this down, it remains as popular today as it has ever been,” he said. “Sooner or later, the people of Virginia are going to get what they want and demand from the political system.”

The relief program proved to be more costly than Mr. Gilmore had estimated.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester last year proposed a tax package that would have fully eliminated the car tax immediately. But because it included an income-tax increase, the House rejected his plan.

Mr. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, did not comment yesterday.

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. said lawmakers must formulate a plan that would completely phase out the car tax. The Augusta County Republican this year proposed a constitutional amendment that would have exempted personal cars from the tax. The Senate Finance Committee took no action on the amendment.

“I can’t support any initiative unless it’s fiscally responsible enough to recognize that we are going to have to replace the lost revenue by some other source,” said Mr. Hanger, who is a member of the committee.

Gov. Mark Warner said last month that he opposed the measure, because it puts the state’s core services at risk. Last year, Mr. Warner, a Democrat, also proposed a package that would have eliminated the car tax by 2008. The House rejected that plan.

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 their local government. Since 2002, the amount that the state pays has been frozen at 70 percent, so motorists pay 30 percent.

Because the car-tax-relief program increases in cost each year as Virginians buy more expensive cars, lawmakers last year imposed a $950 million cap on the the amount that local governments can receive from the state, ensuring that motorists’ bills will rise in coming years.

The car-tax-relief program is one of the largest expenses in the state budget, behind only education and health care.

Other members of the Senate Finance Committee are: William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican; Walter A. Stosch, Henrico County Republican; Charles R. Hawkins, Pittsylvania Republican; Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican; Frederick M. Quayle, Chesapeake Republican; Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City County Republican; H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican; John C. Watkins, Midlothian Republican; Charles J. Colgan Sr., Manassas Democrat; Benjamin J. Lambert III, Richmond Democrat; R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania County Democrat; Janet D. Howell, Fairfax County Democrat; and Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat.

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