[People who don't drive pay for roads because of car tax repeal. Where's the accountability? Where's the responsibility? Poor folk in rural areas paying for suburban freedom. RSB]

Apr 17, 2002

Warner expects happy ending

Assembly to OK vote on sales tax

BY MICHAEL HARDY

TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

Gov. Mark R. Warner, roughed up by the General Assembly during his first months in office, is looking forward to the legislators' return to the state Capitol today.

Warner took his lumps in the legislature's winter session, but the assembly today will endorse a key element of his campaign - a referendum in Northern Virginia Nov. 5 to raise the state sales tax by half a penny to pay for road improvements there.

Despite the newfound amity on the road referendum between War- ner and the GOP-dominated assembly, there still will be plenty of trash talking during today's session.

Lawmakers will consider Warner's single veto and his proposed changes to dozens of bills enacted during the 60-day winter session.

The rookie governor may not prevail on his last-minute pitch to impose a $5-a-ton state fee on garbage dumped in Virginia's landfills. It would produce a $76 million fund to help preserve open lands, to clean up streams and restore industrial sites.

Even the governor's aides acknowledge the outcome looks very close, although House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., R-Amherst and the governor's sometime nemesis, has teamed with Warner to push the new levy. Wilkins is lobbying furiously for the plan.

"The tipping fee is obviously the new meat on the table, and it is being attacked energetically by the trash industry," said press secretary Ellen Qualls. The Virginia Waste Industries Association has mounted a radio advertising campaign against the proposal, saying the fee is a hidden tax that will eventually be paid by consumers.

"But the governor is hopeful," Qualls said. "The proposal was mutually developed with the leadership of both parties [and should mean] that enough lawmakers will understand its long-term benefits and that the costs will be not borne by Virginians."

Eric J. Finkbeiner, a lobbyist for the waste industry, said the issue could go either way. "It's looking very close," he said. "If you're going to raise taxes, why not use it to fully fund Medicaid reimbursements, for schools or more teachers - all those things that we said during the regular session that were essential services that we couldn't fund."

Some lawmakers said Warner may have reached too far in proposing the tipping fee in an amendment to a related bill passed by the assembly.

"You're going to see a lot of debate on trash," said Del. John A. Rollison III, R-Prince William.

The outcome could affect Warner's uneasy let's-be-friends approach with the assembly.

"It's his biggest test so far besides the Northern Virginia referendum," Rollison contended. "But don't ignore [Wilkins,] because between the two of them it's a test of their leadership."

Yesterday, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said he hadn't made up his mind.

"I think the governor and speaker have worked very hard to come up with a good idea, but I'm still wrestling with it," he said. "My respect for the speaker is so great I might vote for it, but I have a lot of concerns."

The scheduled one-day session also should lead to some rhetorical fireworks over Warner's veto of a bill outlawing specific late-term abortion procedures.

Many lawmakers are upset the governor would allow posting the national motto - "In God We Trust" - in public schools only if underwritten by public funds, which are in short supply in the recession-era budget.

Prompt approval is expected of Warner's proposal to award 2.5 percent bonuses to state employees on Aug. 30 rather than waiting until Dec. 1, as scheduled by the assembly. Instead of bonuses, the workers could take up to two weeks of paid leave.

Warner needs a majority of lawmakers to approve his proposed changes, but it would require a two-thirds vote of each chamber to override his single veto, of the "partial-birth-abortion" bill. The administration predicts the measure's supporters appear a vote or two short in the Virginia Senate.

Warner recommended changes to 77 of the 899 bills enacted by the General Assembly requiring action from the governor. He proposed 82 amendments to the state's two-year, $50 billion budget, which starts July 1.

The Northern Virginia road referendum, rejected by the assembly last winter, now appears to be racing to easy approval. Lawmakers from Northern Virginia, who helped kill the idea because of a bitter dispute over the lack of additional funds for education, got an earful from constituents and business leaders after they left the Capitol empty-handed on March 9.

"For all the heat and light generated on that issue, it appears to be well on its way to General Assembly agreement," Rollison said.

Warner tacked the choice for Northern Virginia voters - raising the 4.5 percent sales tax by one-half percentage point - to an assembly-passed measure scheduling a road-improvement referendum in Hampton Roads on Nov. 5. Voters there will consider raising the sales tax by 1 percentage point, to 5.5 cents on the dollar.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Contact Michael Hardy at (804) 649-6810 or mhardy@timesdispatch.com

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Times-Dispatch staff writers Pamela Stallsmith and Jeff E. Schapiro contributed to this report.

This story can be found at : E:\Timesdispatch.com/news/politics/MGB6RXJJ40D.html