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Budget Flap Is Gilmore's Legacy in Va.

Former governor James S. Gilmore hopes to succeed John W. Warner in the Senate.
Former governor James S. Gilmore hopes to succeed John W. Warner in the Senate. (James S. "Jim" Gilmore Iii)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

RICHMOND -- Republican James S. Gilmore III swept into the governor's office a decade ago on a pledge to cut taxes at a time when Virginia's soaring economy left the state with extra money to spend.

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He put thousands of new teachers in classrooms and pumped millions of dollars into the state's historically black universities. He hired the nation's first secretary of technology. He beautified the state's rest stops and supervised a makeover of the historic governor's mansion.

But Gilmore's inability to reach agreement on a spending plan with legislators his final year in office led to months of bitter public bickering with Republicans as well as Democrats. His reputation still hasn't recovered.

"The first three years were fabulous. Then came year four," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "He was a rising star, and in the span of three months, he left a negative impression he is unable to stave off."

Gilmore, 59, now a candidate for U.S. Senate, faces an uphill battle in an increasingly lopsided race against his popular successor, Democrat Mark R. Warner.

The former leader of the Republican National Committee, once a sought-after speaker, trails Warner by 30 points in most polls and by millions of dollars in fundraising.

The race to replace Sen. John W. Warner (R), who is retiring, has largely centered on the candidates' records as governor. Gilmore and Warner accuse each other of financial mismanagement, ineffective leadership and concealment of the truth.

"I would match my administration with Mark Warner's any day of the week and twice on Sunday," Gilmore said.

Gilmore, a lawyer who served as state attorney general before he was elected governor in 1997, traded in his first campaign slogan, "Education First and Then Cut Taxes" for "No Car Tax!" when he realized that Virginians wanted their taxes cut first and foremost, he said.

He promised to eliminate the dreaded personal property tax that localities levy on vehicles and to fully reimburse local governments for their revenue losses. The legislature quickly agreed to phase it out over five years but froze the phaseout in 2002 at 70 percent because of a budget shortfall.

Gilmore's campaign estimated that a full elimination o f the car tax would cost the state at least $620 million a year, but the actual cost ballooned to twice that amount.

Steve Horton, Gilmore's former deputy chief of staff, attributed the increase to "miscalculations" because of a lack of accurate information and a spike in the number of Virginians buying expensive cars in the booming economy.


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