- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

RICHMOND — The gap between anti-tax advocates and pro-tax legislators is widening as the House and Senate today are expected to argue over diverging spending plans that address Virginia’s congested roads.

The Senate plan calls for nearly $4 billion in higher taxes for roads and transit statewide, while the House plan uses part of a multibillion-dollar surplus and some debt to finance projects mainly in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area.

The differing plans have prompted the anti-tax advocates and special interest groups to converge on the state Capitol to lobby lawmakers either for no tax increases or for more money for roads.

Anti-taxers are worried that a special session might create the same political pressure seen in 2004 when a group of Republican delegates bucked party leaders and voted for a $1.38 billion tax increase.

“We’re going to have to see how it shakes out,” said Rob Whitney, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Virginia. “The House of Delegates is probably not going to accept the tax increase package but if we go into a special session, all bets are off.”

The competing interests are closely following the legislative session as a showdown looms, and they are ready for action.

Anti-tax groups yesterday prepared to hold a rally to urge lawmakers to defeat the transportation tax increases proposed in the Senate’s spending plan. However, bad weather forced the groups to cancel it.

Today, state business leaders will call for increased transportation funding to keep the business economy strong.

Meanwhile, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who took office last month pledging to make transportation his top priority, continued his town hall meetings in various parts of Virginia to try to build support among voters for more money to ease gridlock.

The governor will not rule out calling lawmakers into a special session if they fail to agree before the scheduled March 11 adjournment. Lawmakers privately are saying they don’t expect to be finished by then.

“The message we are hearing from the grass roots is ‘do something.’ [Motorists] tell us they are losing hours out of every day,” said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Mr. Kaine.

Mr. Hall said the governor’s statement that drew the biggest applause at the town hall meetings is: “The message to legislators needs to be to get the job done this year.”

Yesterday’s anti-tax rally on Capitol Square didn’t pan out because of wintry weather. The rally became a line of a few dozen Virginians who greeted lawmakers as they made their way from their offices to the official legislative chambers.

The protesters briefly chanted “No tax hike” and “Can you hear us?” until police told them that their rally permit didn’t cover the area where they were gathered.

The Know Campaign, the official organizer of the rally, did little to promote the demonstration.

Some legislators were told that former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican who opposes the tax increase plans, was scheduled to speak at the rally, but that he was not able to attend.

Americans for Prosperity Chairman Paul Harris, a former state delegate, had been touted as a rally guest speaker. He did not attend either, because he had to work, Mr. Whitney said.

Mr. Whitney said he felt the rally had a good turnout, though “everything was going against us.”

“We’re going to win the first round,” he said of the group’s efforts to defeat the proposed increases. “The question is what will happen in the second if we go into overtime.”

Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the turnout for the anti-tax rally was “underwhelming.”

“It’s hard to generate a lot of support for gridlock,” he said.

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