tax plan gets last changes
Alfred M. Biddlecomb
RICHMOND – Legislation allowing Northern Virginians to vote on a
sales tax increase to fund transportation projects was changed one final
time by a Senate committee Thursday, which sent lawmakers scurrying to
secure enough votes in the House of Delegates.
The proposed half percent increase in the region’s sales tax was
bumped up to 1 percent by the Senate Finance Committee to pay for school
construction. The move, orchestrated by Fairfax Democrat Richard Saslaw,
sends the bill back to the House, which voted down a similar measure last
If the House refuses to agree to the Senate amendments, the bill
would fail unless some sort of compromise is struck during the closing days
of the session.
Opinions on the bill reflect the division among Northern Virginia’s
lawmakers, who set a goal to get a sales tax bill passed during the 46-day
Support exists among the region’s delegation for a half percent
increase in the sales tax to fund vital road and rail projects, but lawmakers
in Northern Virginia’s inner ring of suburbs insist that the referendum
include an extra half percent for school construction.
“Education is every bit as important as transportation. In
fact, it’s more important,” Saslaw said Thursday. “I felt all
along that we’re only going to get one bite at the apple.
“If you hold a referendum, then another one is not going to
come around for a long time. We need to have education included.”
Saslaw’s version of the bill would require residents to vote on
the measure in November 2002. If voters approve, the region’s sales tax
would then be raised to 5.5 percent, with half the new revenue going to
transportation and the other half going toward school construction.
In somewhat of a compromise, the education component would be eliminated
after 10 years, and the sales tax rate would drop to 5 percent. The education
component of Saslaw’s amendment is also limited to cash with no bonds authorized.
The House version of the bill was a duplicate of a measure introduced
by Del. John A. “Jack” Rollison, R-Woodbridge, who prefers a half-cent
increase for 35 years to raise more than $2 billion for road and rail projects.
The Rollison version passed the House last week with a veto-proof
70-29 majority. Gov. James S. Gilmore III has threatened to veto regional
taxation bills in the past but has given no indication what he would do
if the Northern Virginia bill passes.
The Saslaw version, which is all that remains after five weeks of
political wrangling, is seven votes short in the House, but members of the
Northern Virginia delegation will make one more push to get it passed.
“We’re working hard on it, and hopefully we’ll find the votes,”
said Centreville Republican Roger McClure, who voted against the Saslaw
version of the bill in the House but now says it’s the region’s last shot.
“The vote’s going to be close, but we’re a little closer now than we
were last time.”
The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously to send the Saslaw
version of the bill to the Senate floor, where it’s expected to pass today.
Because it has been altered, the bill must go back to the House, which can
only give it an up or down vote with no amendments.
Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Manassas, who voted for the amended bill,
told Saslaw during the committee meeting that a full 1 percent increase
could be a tough sell.
“Don’t you think that the voters would have an easier time
voting for a half-cent increase rather than the full cent?” Colgan
said. “You pass this, and we’ll hear from [southwest Virginia] about
Saslaw would not back off his amendment, saying that aging schools
and overcrowding are problems affecting Fairfax and Arlington, and these
problems are spreading to the rest of the outer suburbs.
“There are 16,000 school students in trailers right now,”
Saslaw said, “and it’s only going to get worse.”
The Saslaw amendment also moves the referendum date from November
2001, as originally set by the House, to November 2002.
“I want it kept away from the (2001) gubernatorial race,”
said Saslaw, referring to the upcoming race for governor between Democrat
Mark Warner and either John Hager or Mark Earley. “This should be debated
separately and kept away from the haze of a state election.”
Saslaw also said that a proposed Northern Virginia transportation
authority, which would spend the transportation money but has yet to be
formed, will not be fully organized by the time of a 2001 referendum. A
2002 referendum, Saslaw said, also would allow local governments time to
form a consensus on the matter.