Warner, Warner and Davis stump for sales tax referendum

In a rare show of bipartisan support, Republicans Sen. John Warner and Rep. Tom Davis joined Democrat Gov. Mark R. Warner in making the case for the sales tax referendum Monday in Springfield.

Mark Warner unsuccessfully challenged John Warner for his Senate seat in 1996. But Monday the two were on the same side of the podium at an informational meeting for employees of the Washington Gas Co., sponsored by the pro-referendum Citizens for Better Transportation.

“The governor and I have had an interesting political career, and as I understand we are now adopted cousins,” said John Warner.

Jokes aside, Virginia’s senior senator and Davis said they will vote for the sales tax referendum.

“I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just telling you what one voter will do … you’re just as smart on this issue as we are,” John Warner said.

“I am very tax-averse but I support the sales tax referendum,” Davis said. “Everyone gets the same vote I get.”

Their semi-endorsements of the referendum echoed that of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th District, who “as an individual … is voting for it [but] he’s not promoting it nor working against it,” his spokesman Dan Scandling said last week.

The referendum asks voters to raise the sales tax by half a cent in nine Northern Virginia jurisdictions to pay for $5 billion in transportation improvements, of which more than 40 percent would go to mass transit and around 10 percent for HOV lanes, proponents say.

The information meeting also covered arguments leveled from opponents, especially those of smart growth and environmental groups that kicked off their “No Sprawl Tax” campaign against the referendum Monday with signs like “It won’t solve traffic problems … But the Developers will thank you.”

“It doesn’t get developers off the hook,” said Davis, responding to the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s argument that the $350 million in the referendum for Dulles rail replaces the local match that is supposed to come from real estate taxes. “You’re still going to need a special tax district,” he said.

Times are so tight that the region’s delegation cannot even qualify for federal dollars for Dulles rail unless they have something in hand. “This will get us in queue,” Davis said.

Virginia did well in the last reauthorization of the six-year federal transportation allocation bill, but “there is no big additional pot of money to release to the states,” John Warner said. The highest match rate now is 50-50, he said, and maybe the region can get that because it’s near the nation’s capital.

“Unless we raise a lot of capital, mass transit is always going to play second fiddle,” Mark Warner said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, asked at his meeting: Then why doesn’t all $5 billion go to mass transit? “It’s a gift. It’s a Trojan horse. It’s there to get the inner jurisdictions’ support.”

“The people who oppose it — do they have a solution or are they satisfied with the status quo?” Davis responded later.

At times, Warner’s message was the same as that of Schwartz — “We can’t asphalt our way … to a transportation solution,” Warner said — but Schwartz said the referendum also does not force jurisdictions to link land use with transportation.

Warner said the disconnect between Richmond’s road planning and local zoning will hopefully be fixed with the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which will control the revenues, because area leaders sit on it.

Those are the same politicians who have led to sprawl in the region except in Arlington, Schwartz said.

“We are not confident. We think any progress toward good land use policy will be washed away by this referendum,” Schwartz said.

Mark Warner also kept up the exchanges with anti-tax opponents.

“The belief that there is this bucket of money in Richmond if we [reprioritize] is like believing in the tooth fairy,” he said. He went over the $3.8 billion hole the General Assembly closed this year and the new state budget deficit of $1.5 billion caused by falling revenues, which have frozen the car tax at 70 percent phased out.

Revenue growth was supposed to pay for the car-tax cut but revenues had a record decline in the fiscal year that ended June 30, he said. “That business plan had as much validity as the dot-com business plans,” the governor said.

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