By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005
RICHMOND, Sept. 7 -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine accused his Republican opponent of wanting to roll back billions of dollars in spending on public schools that the Virginia General Assembly approved last year.
At a news conference in front of Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, the lieutenant governor said former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore's intentions were made plain in a fundraising letter the Republican sent to supporters in June 2004, though a Kilgore spokesman said later that the Kaine campaign was twisting the meaning of the letter.
In it, Kilgore attacked a bipartisan budget compromise that raised taxes by $1.5 billion over two years to fund schools, colleges, police, health care and sheriff's deputies.
"History has shown, time and time again, that tax increases slow economic growth and hurt ordinary citizens," Kilgore wrote in the letter. "I can only hope that, come next year, you and I can begin to undo this damage."
Kaine, who led efforts to rebuild the Walker school and move the governor's school there when he was mayor of Richmond, seized on the word "damage," saying it shows that Kilgore isn't committed to school spending. Most of the new money that was raised by the budget compromise was used to boost school spending.
"He said it himself," Kaine said. "A budget reform that put historic amounts into our public schools, public safety, prosecutors, transportation, health care. We viewed this as moving Virginia forward. Jerry viewed the steps we made as damage that needed to be undone."
Kilgore spokesman J. Tucker Martin said the "damage" Kilgore was referring to was the tax increases, which included a half-cent rise in the sales tax and additional levies on cigarettes and deed recording.
Martin said Kilgore stands by his desire to undo the tax increases but believes the state could have -- and should have -- increased the spending on public education without resorting to tax increases.
"Virginians know that raising taxes does not equal raising our children. That's the lazy, liberal way of doing business," Martin said. "Jerry Kilgore fully supports public education in Virginia."
Martin said Kilgore has always believed that Virginia's economy is improving rapidly and that tax revenues are rising fast enough to have made the investments in education without the tax increases. He said the state's recent budget surplus of $544 million is evidence that he was right.
"Economic growth would have funded education in Virginia. That has been proven by the surplus we see in Richmond," Martin said.
But Kaine aides said they believe their message is a powerful one that will resonate with Virginia's voters, who have consistently ranked public education as one of the most important issues in past elections.
Four years ago, a Washington Post poll found that 97 percent of those surveyed said improving education is important in determining how they would vote in that year's governor's race.
The exchange Wednesday foreshadows a debate that is likely to dominate the political contest during the next two months, campaign advisers and longtime political observers said.
Kaine will seek credit for popular spending, including spending on schools, by casting last year's tax fight as "budget reform" and by emphasizing that much of the money was spent on education.
Kilgore, by contrast, will try to cast last year's legislative battle as a fight over taxes. He will argue that electing Kaine might lead to another round of tax increases.