Wednesday, April 28, 2004

RICHMOND — Lawmakers in the deeply divided General Assembly that passed record tax increases and froze the popular car-tax-relief program broke promises they made to voters when they ran for office last year.

In all, 83 of the 140 lawmakers on Tuesday voted in favor of the $1.38 billion tax plan that would raise the state sales and cigarette taxes. Of those, 32 were Republicans.

Four Republicans, who previously signed a pledge to oppose tax increases, violated it when they voted in support of the tax plan.

“I am unaware of a single Republican or Democrat who ran promising to raise taxes,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. All 140 seats were up for election last November, and none of the elected legislators told voters they planned to raise taxes, according to Mr. Norquist and other anti-tax leaders.

Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III said it’s “pretty awful” that lawmakers broke their promises. Mr. Gilmore, who introduced the car-tax rollback when he was elected in 1997, said he wants to reverse the new car-tax policy that caps the amount the state reimburses localities for lost revenue.

“It’s dreadful they would campaign on one position and do something different,” said Mr. Gilmore, a Republican. “They took the easy way out. It’s not courageous and it’s not to be celebrated.”

Mr. Norquist’s group has a list of the 41 Republicans and Democrats who signed the anti-tax pledge. Mr. Norquist said some of the lawmakers signed the pledge 10 years ago and are bound to it as long as they hold office.

Lawmakers can ask to be removed from the list whenever they want, he said.

Some of the lawmakers who voted for the tax increases said they had to do it to end the budget stalemate. Today, the General Assembly has been in session for 107 days.

The nine House and Senate budget negotiators said yesterday they believe a deal can be reached on the state’s two-year tax-and-spending plan by Monday.

Republicans who signed the pledge and voted for the tax increases are: Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. of Winchester, Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. of Amherst County, Delegate L. Preston Bryant Jr. of Amherst County and Delegate Harvey B. Morgan of Gloucester County.

Mr. Bryant and Mr. Morgan were two of the 17 Republicans who broke from their anti-tax leadership and teamed up with House Democrats to pass a tax-increase plan two weeks ago.

Delegates yesterday defended their votes for the tax increase, saying the budget impasse forced them to vote for more revenue.

One of them is Delegate Joe T. May, a Loudoun County Republican who initially said he would vote against the tax plan. But, on Tuesday, Mr. May switched his vote in support of an increase.

“Taxes suck the lifeblood out of families, businesses and our economy’s growth,” Mr. May said April 12 when he announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor next year.

Yesterday, Mr. May, who has not signed the anti-tax pledge, said he voted in favor of the tax increases because it was necessary to end the stalemate.

“I am still very much opposed to taxes, but in this case I’m more opposed to failing to achieve a budget,” he said. “I felt if we didn’t do it [Tuesday] it wasn’t going to get done.”

The Legislature also on Tuesday voted to cap the annual state reimbursements to counties and cities at $950 million a year for revenue lost under the car-tax cut. That means car owners in Virginia will pay 30 percent of the car tax indefinitely.

Local governments could make up for the loss by raising other taxes, as the value of cars continues to rise. The payment grows each year by about $150 million as more people buy more-expensive cars.

Republicans who signed the anti-tax pledge and voted for the car-tax cap are: Mr. Ruff, Mr. Potts, Mr. Bryant, Mr. Morgan, Delegates Chris B. Saxman of Staunton, and R. Steven Landes of Augusta County. Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, Martinsville Democrat, also signed the pledge but ended up voting for the cap.

The passage of the cap angered some anti-tax lawmakers.

“No one ran on this,” said Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican, who opposed the car-tax cap. “No one ran on freezing a promise they made to constituents.”

Anti-tax groups have promised to put up conservative primary challengers to the Republicans who voted for the taxes. They some predict incumbents will lose their seats.

Many delegates agree.

“This bill is about keeping your promises to people,” Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William County Republican. “People are going to remember. They are going to remember whether a promise made and a promise kept was just another bumper sticker or something that you believed in your heart was important.”

The delegates will be up for election next year. Senators will not face voters until 2007.

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