RICHMOND, Jan. 25 -- Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates pledged today to revive the stalled car-tax relief program, a move that could spark a fight with senators and Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) over the state budget and its finances.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and senior Republicans in the House said the state's rapidly expanding economy, which has boosted tax collections by more than $900 million, compels lawmakers to make good on the politically popular promise to end the yearly tax on automobiles.
"For us, it all boils down to a question of trust," Howell told reporters in a mid-morning news conference. "In 2005, we have additional opportunities to treat the taxpayers of Virginia with the respect they deserve, and to do right by them."
House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) said Republicans in the House will seek to undo legislation that stopped the car tax relief plan from reaching its original goal of paying for 100 percent of the tax on the first $20,000 of a car's value. The cap was approved last year as part of the budget compromise that ended the 115-day session.
"We pledge now to end this interruption and honor our commitments to the people of Virginia," Callahan said. "There has never been a more appropriate time to recommit ourselves to fulfilling our promise."
But the proposal was immediately criticized by several senators, who said the growth of the car tax relief program, which costs the state $950 million each year, threatens full funding for education, health care, public safety, colleges and other core services.
"It is costing vastly more than was ever predicted when it was adopted" in 1998, said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), the chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "The General Assembly cannot afford to make this one of the highest priorities of state government."
Whipple said the proposal by the House Republicans is likely to renew a long-standing fight between the two Republican-led chambers over the state's budget.
"I don't relish it, but I'm perfectly willing," she said.
Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he expects senators in both parties to oppose the House proposal.
"I don't think there's going to be an appetite for that in the Senate," Chichester said. "If I know my colleagues, and I think I know them well, I don't think they are going to roll those dice."
In a statement, Warner said the House Republican proposal would "almost certainly condemn us to repeat the same mistakes we've spent three years trying to fix. In one stroke, it would create an entitlement that would quickly grow to be larger than everything we now spend on law enforcement and prisons combined."
Warner said the proposal appears to be the result of "election year pressures" and said "Virginians should be wary of a predictable onslaught of promises of a free lunch once again."
All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election on Nov. 8.
Howell's announcement was hailed by several anti-tax lawmakers in the House who had submitted similar measures this month.
Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Amherst) said he is "glad we're having the conversation again."
And some Northern Virginia lawmakers, whose constituents benefit most from the car tax relief program, said they will reserve judgment on the proposal until development of the state's two-year budget is further along.
"I think this will reopen the debate again over what out priorities are," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria). "We have been able to generate some unanticipated revenues, but the question is, is it enough?"
Ending the car tax was one of the most popular campaign issues in Virginia history when it swept Republican James S. Gilmore III into the governor's mansion in the 1997 election. Republicans later captured both chambers of the legislature, in part by campaigning to fully implement Gilmore's promise.
But the promise quickly became a costly one that lawmakers found difficult to keep as the nation's economy turned sour at the beginning of the decade. In 2001, lawmakers deadlocked with Gilmore over whether to continue phasing out the tax.
Last year, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in both chambers agreed to cap the car tax relief program at $950 million a year, which allows the state to pay for about 70 percent of every car tax bill. Led by senators, the lawmakers said they could no longer afford to allow the tax relief program to grow.