GOP, governor gloss over their tax differences

House Republicans have toned down their criticism of Gov. Mark R. Warner for not leading on tax reform and instead are focusing on keeping their joint effort open to the public.

Warner met informally with the 10-member tax reform commission Thursday in Richmond, and some observers remarked it was a sort of “kumbaya” moment with the only ill-tempered remarks coming from House Republican caucus leader Virginia Beach Delegate Leo C. Wardrup, R-83rd District.

Just a month ago House Speaker William J. Howell, R-28th District, of Stafford, was daring Warner to ask for a tax increase. Howell and other area Republicans held their fire before and after the meeting.

“If the governor will engage now and speak candidly about what he recommends and what he will support, we will meet him in good faith, have an open dialogue on points of disagreement, and seek common ground for genuine reform,” Howell said in a statement. “We should trust the people. After all, they are the ones whose taxes pay government’s bills.”

Prince William Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st District, was critical of Warner this spring, citing the legislature’s role is to mark up proposals by the governor — it’s his job to propose and the legislatures to dispose. On Thursday, he said the important point is the discussions should be public.

Warner supporters had wanted some framework of tax reform worked out behind closed doors to reduce exposure on politically unpopular ideas. That method is not unprecedented: Two years ago facing a $2 billion budget hole, Warner met with the GOP leadership in secret to come up with a mutual gameplan to fix the budget. Until this past session, lawmakers worked out final budget compromises away from the press.

Frank discussions in private would facilitate the process again, Democrats said.

Lingamfelter disagreed.

“If the discussion is worth having it’s worth having in public,” Lingamfelter said. “We don’t close the doors on the people when we have debate on the House floor.”

Prince William is supplying 3 of the 10 committee members by virtue of seniority and having the two finance committee chairmen: Stafford Senator and Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester, R-28th District, Manassas Delegate and House Finance Chairman Harry J. Parrish, R-50th District, and Manassas Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-29th District.

That healthy showing is a sore point for Southwest Virginia lawmakers who complained to newspapers this week that only two members came from western Virginia, and none from the most southwestern areas.

But wealthy Northern Virginia counties like Fairfax and Loudoun have no membership either, said commission members.

“I don’t think the speaker made the appointments considering where someone lived. He considered their expertise,” said Parrish, who along with Chichester is the most versed on the state tax code.

In some ways, the tax reform debate will run parallel to a discussion over whether Virginia is meeting its needs, a theme that will be at the center of Prince William’s most interesting race this year: seasoned House veteran David Brickley running against Lingamfelter.

Conservative Republicans have drawn a line that voters embrace: Tax changes must be revenue neutral.

“People are simply taxed out,” Lingamfelter said.

Democratic party press releases highlight continued shortfalls in K-12 education funding, higher road maintenance costs squeezing construction dollars and a hole unseen now in the state’s two-year budget that will open up once its one-time fixes come due in 2004.

Those arguments have been shown not to resonate well in November, especially in Northern Virginia where the sales tax referendum was defeated. However, the commission is not expected to make any proposals until after November elections. Its first meeting is July 15.

Even if there is no net increase in taxes, Parrish said the reality is unpopular decisions will still have to be made.

“You try to keep anything you do revenue neutral as much as you can,” he said. “If you want to eliminate the sales tax on food, something else has to go up. If we want to see the rest of the elimination of the personal property tax on automobiles, again it has to be replaced with something else.”

If counties want the same taxing authority of cities, they should take on the responsibilities that come with the taxing power, he said.

Parrish acknowledged the commission has its hands full. “I’m sure it’s going to be very difficult to get everything done.”

Warner’s staff will undertake a parallel effort on tax reform that will hopefully “intersect” the tax commission on multiple points, said Warner spokesman Kevin Hall. If the commission’s work gets bogged down in election politics, Warner’s effort will be the backup, he said.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be a tax restructuring bill, whether the Assembly is with us or not,” Hall said.

Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (703) 878-8062.