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Beyer's Position On Regional Taxes Has N.Va. Backers

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 1997; Page B01

Several Northern Virginia leaders expressed relief and delight yesterday at Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr.'s willingness to let local governments impose regional taxes for road and rail projects.

Beyer, a Democrat running for governor against Republican James S. Gilmore III, said during a debate Wednesday in McLean that he would support legislation allowing regional gas or sales taxes. It was the first time during this fall's campaign for governor that either candidate has been willing to discuss new taxes of any kind.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) said that although she doesn't want to let the state off the hook for projects it should be paying for, a regional approach might help meet needs "that aren't even a gleam in anyone's eye, as far as funding."

Hanley said that among the area's transportation needs are completion of the 35-mile Fairfax County Parkway, construction of a rail link to Dulles International Airport and extended commuter rail service from Vienna to Centreville or Gainesville.

"Don understands that there are enormous transportation needs in Northern Virginia and not enough money to pay for them," she said. "There needs to be a regional discussion about how to pay for these things."

The campaign for governor has been dominated by debate over the candidates' competing plans to reduce the burden of the state's personal property tax on cars and trucks. Regional taxes would provide a way for Beyer to keep his promise not to raise state taxes yet achieve his goal of improving transportation networks to create a Virginia that will "look different when we leave office."

Republican Gov. George Allen has opposed the idea of regional authorities with taxing powers, viewing them as what a spokesman called "a patchwork quilt model of taxation."

Gilmore says he's against any new taxes, even by localities. He condemned Beyer's "new tax hike scheme," calling it the Democrat's "secret plan" to raise taxes.

"He's wanted to raise taxes all along, and now he's figured out another scheme to do it," Gilmore said in Norfolk yesterday.

Gilmore's plan to phase out the personal property tax includes a provision for local taxation. His plan says that if the legislature fails to reimburse localities for all revenue they would have gotten from the personal property tax, "Gilmore will put in place a legal mechanism which allows local governments to collect any shortfall in state reimbursements from their citizens."

Last week, Gilmore said he would have voted against the landmark 1986 transportation package of then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, which included an increase in the sales and gas taxes to pay for road projects such as the widening of Braddock Road and Route 123 in Fairfax.

Campaigning yesterday in Manassas, Beyer said that the idea of regional authorities had been raised by a group of Hampton Roads business leaders and that he believes local governments should determine whether they want to create such agencies.

"I've said very clearly that as governor, I don't want to raise state taxes," Beyer said. "But I also don't want, as governor, to tie the hands of local governments, which have enormous responsibilities.

"They have school buildings that they have to build. If there's a regional group that wants to come together in Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia and address regional transportation needs, I want to be their partner. I don't want to be an obstacle."

Such taxes would require approval from the General Assembly. Currently, Northern Virginia -- part of a Washington region that studies say has the nation's second-longest average commutes, after Los Angeles -- pays a gas tax 2 percent higher than the rest of the state to help pay for mass transit.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the Northern Virginia delegation of the General Assembly, said he believes legislators would be receptive to a regional tax plan as long as the localities had nailed down the details and could demonstrate "a groundswell of public support."

The delegation's other co-chairman, Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), said Northern Virginia's transportation needs are not yet dire enough to warrant an extra burden on local residents.

"It may come to that, but I wouldn't be for that now," he said. "The economic health and vitality of Northern Virginia is a major factor in the health and vitality of the whole state."

When given taxing authority, localities have used it gingerly. In 1989, the General Assembly voted to allow Northern Virginia governments to impose a 1 percent income tax to pay for transportation improvements if they first put it to a referendum. Not one such proposal has made it to a ballot.

Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, said regional sales or gas taxes are the sort of "little bites" that people are more willing to pay than an annual hit such as the property tax on vehicles.

Merten, who also is chairman of the Northern Virginia Roundtable, a group of business and education leaders that wants more investment in roads and schools, said he hopes local projects might provide momentum for greater state spending.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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