RICHMOND, Feb. 27 -- Virginia's Republican-controlled General Assembly ended its 2005 session Sunday having temporarily papered over its deep divisions about taxes to approve election-year bills that boost spending on transportation, the environment and state services.
One year after the legislature deadlocked in a marathon battle over tax increases, lawmakers in both parties conducted this 47-day session with little evidence of the personal rancor and philosophical differences that gripped the Capitol in 2004.
House Speaker William J. Howell is surrounded at the lectern by other GOP lawmakers after this year's session adjourned. "We've got a united caucus, working together," Howell said of the outcome.
(Steve Helber -- AP)
"What happened last year was last year," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who had watched his majority fracture during the fight over Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's tax proposals. "We've got a united caucus, working together."
But that unity is at risk of vanishing as Virginia's election season gets underway and Republicans battle one another in primary campaigns for some of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Powerful interest groups on both sides of the tax debate are eagerly waiting to stoke those differences during the next three months.
When voters go to the polls in the June 14 primaries, they will decide whether to punish the maverick House Republicans who ended the 2004 budget stalemate by breaking with the leadership to help pass Warner's $1.5 billion tax increase package. Or voters could reward them for investing in colleges, health care, police and schools.
In November, voters could readjust the balance of power in the House, where Democrats have been chipping away at the GOP majority.
"A year from now, if nothing else, there will have been a battle, and someone will have won the battle for the soul of the Republican Party," said Steve Haner, chief lobbyist for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Gubernatorial candidates are about to launch multimillion-dollar campaigns in which the 2004 tax fight will be a central issue. Two major-party candidates -- former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) -- already have clashed about their positions on the tax increases.
Last week, Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) launched an independent bid to be Virginia's next governor by touting his support for the tax increases last year and praising "Republicans and Democrats who stood tall last year in the budget crisis."
Before long, television viewers will be barraged by political ads. Glossy brochures will pile up by the dozens in mailboxes, some of them filled with vitriol. Planes and buses will crisscross the state, carrying candidates tens of thousands of miles between Bristol, Alexandria, Winchester and Franklin.
Their targets are Virginia's voters. Will they extend Warner's term-limited legacy of Democratic governance by electing Kaine? Or will they return the executive mansion to Republicans by electing Kilgore? Or will they turn to Potts, an irascible but energetic longtime lawmaker whose effect will be uncertain?
"The tax issue is central, and so is the split within the GOP that has been obvious since 2001," said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "You've got a four-going-on-five-year split in the GOP that has been festering. The wound hasn't healed. It's gotten infected, and it's going to emerge in the election."
Political observers had expected last year's battle over tax increases to erupt again during the session that ended Sunday. Some anti-tax lawmakers had threatened last year to try to roll back the increases, undo the cap on the car-tax relief program or offer large tax rebates.
But that threat never materialized. Instead, Howell joined Warner and a chorus of lawmakers in both parties in calling for spending on transportation and other popular programs.