RICHMOND, Jan. 25 -- House Republican leaders pledged Tuesday to push the car-tax relief program to completion, reviving the GOP's most potent political issue and breathing new life into Virginia's tax debate at the beginning of an election year.
Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) and other senior Republicans in the House said the state's rapidly expanding economy, which has boosted tax collections by more than $900 million since last year, compels lawmakers to make good on the politically popular promise to end the yearly tax on automobiles.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), left, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) say they want to honor the promise lawmakers made to voters about phasing out the car tax.
(Steve Helber -- AP)
Virginia's Car Tax|
Virginia House Republican leaders have revived debate on one of their party's major issues.
GOP Proposal: The Republicans promised yesterday to undo legislation that has stopped the car-tax relief plan from reaching its original goal of paying for all of the tax on the first $20,000 of a car's value.
The Car Tax: It's a local tax, not a state tax. It helps local governments pay for the services they provide.
The Cut: Virginia's state government pays the local governments so they can reduce the tax on vehicle owners without cutting services.
The Program: The program to cut the car tax was launched by then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) in 1998. It was increased gradually during his term until it covered 70 percent of car-tax payments. Last year, the assembly agreed to cap the amount the state reimburses local governments.
The Politics: The GOP proposal revives one of the state party's strongest issues at the start of a big election year. It sets up a debate on what the state should do with the additional money coming in as the economy strengthens.
"For us, it all boils down to a question of trust," Howell said. "In 2005, we have additional opportunities to treat the taxpayers of Virginia with the respect they deserve."
The move is the latest effort by the House speaker to seize control of the legislative agenda after being outmaneuvered by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and Senate Republicans during the budget fight in 2004. Last month, Howell proposed a transportation plan that was larger than Warner's and endorsed changes in government operations that he hopes will resonate with voters.
Tuesday's GOP announcement also positions the car tax as a preeminent issue in the 2005 campaign for governor between Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), the leading candidates for their parties' nominations.
Ending the car tax was one of the most popular campaign issues in Virginia history. In 1997, it quickly caught fire in vote-rich Northern Virginia, where many families own several expensive cars, and swept Republican James S. Gilmore III into the governor's mansion.
On Tuesday, both Kilgore and Kaine sought to claim the mantle of car-tax relief.
Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Kilgore, said "this is a promise to voters that needs to be continued" when the state has enough money to do so. Kilgore was out of town and not available for comment, Cantrell said.
In an interview, Kaine said he supports fully phasing out the car tax but called the House proposal "an election-year thing." He said: "You have to come up with money to fund it. That's what they haven't done this year."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: "This is a good election-year stance for Republicans. It's what their folks like to see, and they remember a GOP landslide in 1997 [based] on three words: 'No car tax.' "
The tax is an annual levy that Virginians pay to local governments based on the value of their personal vehicles. The relief program Gilmore pushed through in 1998 required the state to cover a growing portion of car owners' tax bills.
For several years, Virginia's politicians struggled to balance car-tax relief against demands for public services. Last year, the legislature froze the tax rollback as part of the budget compromise that ended the 115-day session. Now, with the state's economy growing by more than 18 percent and more tax money than expected coming in, the governor and lawmakers are faced with a new question:
Spend it, or give it back?
House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) said Republicans in the House will seek to undo the 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.