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The issue of raising taxes has gone beyond the discussion stage.
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By RICHARD AMRHINE
GETTING A READ on the General Assembly was much easier before the party lines got blurred. These days, as lawmakers prepare to take on Virginia's worst-ever budget crisis, the rules for political stereotyping are out the window.
Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is committed to closing the existing $2 billion hole in the budget without raising taxes. He's taking his cue from last month's referendum on boosting the sales tax in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, which voters from each area soundly rejected. Now, he proposes a budget cut like he's throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the legislature to accept it.
On the other hand, you've got Del. Jim Dillard, a Fairfax Republican, who says it's ludicrous to think the budget gap can be closed without a tax increase, and he's preparing legislation to do just that. He thinks Virginians have felt quite enough pain already.
Sen. John Chichester, the Stafford Republican who, as Finance Committee chairman, is as intimate with Virginia's budget as one can be. It was his standoff with former Gov. Jim Gilmore two years ago over funding for car-tax relief that led to Virginia's unprecedented budget impasse.
Chichester's firsthand knowledge and strong stands on budget issues lend bipartisan confidence to his opinions. As a fiscal conservative, he's reluctant to raise taxes. As a realist, he wanted to hold off on increasing car-tax relief from 47 percent to 70 percent in 2000. Today, he struggles with how to resolve the budget gap, and acknowledges that some sort of revenue enhancement can't be ruled out.
"When I'm told we need to cut more fat, I feel like I'm going to put a dirty sock in their mouth," he told journalists earlier this week at a pre-General Assembly forum sponsored by The Associated Press.
Of course there were the more predictable statements from the forum's panelists.
Sen. Edd Houck, the Spotsylvania Republican and Finance Committee member, called for a rollback of the car-tax relief program from the current 70 percent to the previous plateau of 47 percent. That, of course, would be labeled a tax increase, but he's already on record favoring discussion of tax increases.