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In Va. Governor's Race, Spotlight on Taxes Again

By Peter Whoriskey and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C06

The promise of tax relief has reemerged as a dominant theme in Virginia politics as the likely candidates for governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, begin touring the state with competing plans to ease levies on homeowners.

The proposals mark a return of the anti-tax zeal that has characterized many Virginia campaigns in the past decade. They suggest that the 2005 governor's race will focus less on what government can do for voters and more on voters' reluctance to pay for government.

_____Virginia Government_____
Homer Tapped as Transportation Chief in Va. (Associated Press, Mar 24, 2005)
Va. Voters Promised a Voice on Taxes (The Washington Post, Mar 23, 2005)
Going Back to Roots, Kilgore Gets Started (The Washington Post, Mar 22, 2005)
Kilgore to Kick Off Gubernatorial Bid Today (The Washington Post, Mar 21, 2005)
Full Report
_____Virginia Taxes_____
Fitch Aims to Give Kilgore Competition (The Washington Post, Mar 18, 2005)
Kaine to Launch Gubernatorial Run Today (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Competing Budget Plans Advance in Va. (The Washington Post, Feb 11, 2005)
Va. House, Senate Panels Split on Rail, Roads Funds (The Washington Post, Feb 7, 2005)
More on Taxes

The outcome will be significant to Virginia homeowners, many of whom are angry about the rapid rise in local tax bills, and to politicians nationwide, who see the state's off-year election as a proving ground for messages that might resonate with voters elsewhere.

The resurgence of such appeals in Virginia comes a year after Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) sought to recast taxes as a "public investment" and gained national attention by pushing increases in taxes and spending through the Republican-led General Assembly. He convinced enough legislators that more budget cuts would harm the state.

This month, the two men most likely to succeed him are focused on plans to limit taxes, proposals they say are at the heart of their campaigns.

Kaine opened his campaign two weeks ago with a call for a state constitutional amendment to allow cities and counties to exempt as much as 20 percent of a home's assessed value from taxes; last week, Kilgore proposed an amendment to cap increases in home assessments at 5 percent a year.

Both said the tax curbs they are espousing will not come at the expense of government services. But as skeptics on all sides point out, roads and school systems cannot expand to meet the needs of a growing state without more cash.

"Now we're back to the hot-fudge sundae diet for voters," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "One candidate offers a hot fudge sundae. The other offers a hot fudge sundae with extra sauces and extra scoops. And they both promise that you will lose weight. It's amazing how many people bite."

In local politics, at least, the timing of the proposals is well-timed.

In most of Northern Virginia, home assessments have doubled in the past five years, and the campaigns said they have heard repeated complaints about the resulting tax bills in polling, focus groups and less formal meetings with voters.

Neither Kaine's nor Kilgore's proposal represents an impervious ceiling on homeowners' tax increases, however, and neither is as strict as California's Proposition 13, the referendum passed in 1978 that places tight caps on home assessments and tax rates.

In fact, the exact effects of the Kaine and Kilgore proposals are impossible to predict with any certainty because in each, ultimate control over the tax bills belongs to city and county elected leaders, who would continue to set the tax rate.

To some observers, this makes the competing proposals superfluous.

"Virginia voters already have the ultimate way of lowering their taxes: They can vote the bums out of office," said David Brunori, who teaches tax policy at George Washington University and is a contributing editor of State Tax Notes.

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