- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

Compared with last year’s 115-day session of the Virginia General Assembly, which concluded with the passage of a $1.38 billion tax increase that split the state Republican Party, the 2005 session that ended Sunday was something of a relief.

Taxpayers actually won some modest victories, as the General Assembly voted to end accelerated sales-tax collection for 98 percent of the state’s retail businesses — a scheme enacted just three years ago as a budget-balancing tool. Lawmakers also voted to abolish the state’s portion of the grocery tax. But House Republicans were unsuccessful in their effort to use part of the state budget surplus to complete the phaseout of the car tax. Thanks to Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester, the tax cut remains frozen at 70 percent of the first $20,000 of the assessed value of a car.

There were some positive developments in other areas. The General Assembly passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The resolution must be approved by lawmakers next year and then be passed by a referendum in November 2006 before it is added to the Virginia Constitution. Lawmakers also approved legislation advocated by former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore strengthening penalties for the manufacture of methamphetamine and gang recruitment, and making murders committed at the instigation of drug-dealing gangs subject to capital punishment.

Lawmakers passed medical-malpractice reform legislation that includes provisions requiring the state’s Medical Review Board to evaluate physicians who have three or more malpractice settlements, and allows doctors to demonstrate empathy to patients without having it used to demonstrate evidence of liability. The General Assembly also passed legislation restricting various forms of public assistance to illegal immigrants, and legislators killed a measure that would have permitted Virginia Beach and Northern Virginia jurisdictions to continue using red-light cameras. Lawmakers will return to the Capitol April 6 to consider Gov. Mark Warner’s vetoes and amendments to bills passed during this year’s session.

Unfortunately, however, when it came to the two-year, $63 billion budget for the commonwealth, approved 92-1 by the House and unanimously by the Senate, nothing much has changed. The General Assembly, divided between conservatives who dominate the House and Democrats and Republicans in Name Only who control the Senate, ended up passing a mishmash of raises for college faculty, state workers and state-funded local employees. There was also money in the budget for everything from the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts to a Cold War Museum for Northern Virginia, and lawmakers are congratulating themselves over the passage of $848 million for transportation improvements — something everyone admits is just a downpayment on a larger long-term program. But the General Assembly has yet to take action to correct the underlying problem with state spending: the fact that spending increases for education, social welfare and other things over the past two decades have made it impossible to pay for transportation improvements without raising taxes or incurring new debt.

That is why this year’s elections are so important. Earlier this month, Mr. Chichester hinted that he would consider new taxes next year to increase transportation spending. Having seen Mr. Chichester in action, we take him at his word. Last year, he proposed a $4 billion tax increase — almost three times the size of the tax increase that lawmakers eventually agreed to. He and the great majority of his Senate colleagues in both parties have been consistent advocates of tax increases.

Of critical concern is the House of Delegates, where some of the incumbent Republicans who joined Messrs. Warner and Chichester to pass last year’s tax increase will face the voters in June 14 primaries. If several of those entrenched Republicans are defeated, it will send a strong signal to Republican leadership about the future direction of the party. The most important election will take place in November, when Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a Warner loyalist, will likely square off against Mr. Kilgore, who has taken a solid stance against tax increases. Should he be elected governor, Mr. Kilgore will need to have an early showdown with Mr. Chichester over taxes.

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