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Excerpts of James S. Gilmore III's State of the Commonwealth address.

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Gilmore Details Plan on Car Tax

By R.H. Melton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 1998; Page A01

RICHMOND, Jan. 19 – Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) offered new details on his planned phaseout of the car tax tonight as he outlined a relatively modest legislative agenda aimed at pleasing his conservative allies in the General Assembly while testing his skills as a can-do chief executive.

Gilmore, in his maiden State of the Commonwealth address before lawmakers, announced that a system of vouchers, rather than outright cash grants, would be used in the later years of the five-year plan to eliminate the tax on $20,000 of each vehicle's value. As the tax cut was phased in, Gilmore said, car owners would receive vouchers from the state to be used in paying the tax to local governments.

The governor also put a positive spin on new estimates of the escalating cost of his plan, which Democrats say could rise to more than $3 billion over five years and eventually force cuts in other programs, such as schools and roads. Officials in Virginia's 135 local governments, which collect the personal property tax, are jittery about the effect the rollback could have on their budgets.

"To the extent new information reveals that Virginians pay even more car taxes than originally estimated, the public will get even more of their money back," Gilmore said. "That is good news!"

Several Democratic lawmakers, who have expressed concern about the tax cut's cost, shook their heads when asked about Gilmore's stance.

"That's the most disingenuous bit of snake oil I've ever heard in this place," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax).

Gilmore, who repeatedly emphasized his desire for Republicans and Democrats in the divided legislature to work together after last week's rocky beginning, also issued a strong request for passage of a measure creating publicly funded, privately run charter schools in Virginia.

The new governor, who took office Saturday, made several gestures to Northern Virginia, saying "there is no time to waste in getting on with" replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the badly deteriorating structure spanning the Potomac River at Alexandria.

Gilmore offered no funding plan for that project, though he did note that his administration would be aggressive about securing federal highway funds.

He reiterated his long-standing desire to close the District's Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County and made special mention of George Mason University's role in promoting technology. Gilmore plans to create a Cabinet-level technology officer, a move he hopes will help boost Northern Virginia's growing high-tech base.

Gilmore also focused on two areas that critics accused his office of neglecting during his 3o-year tenure as state attorney general: the environment and enforcement of new federal laws aimed at curbing teenagers' access to tobacco.

Gilmore pledged $63 million for continuing the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and said he was preparing a package of bills giving localities more leeway in preserving wetlands and creating scenic easements.

And the governor – who came under fire as attorney general last year when his office indicated that it would not enforce the new federal tobacco regulations – sternly told lawmakers his position on the matter. "Let me be clear on this subject," he said. "I will not tolerate tobacco being sold to children."

He also pledged his support for Virginia's leaf growers, to thunderous applause from rural legislators.

During his 40-minute address, Gilmore returned to themes he had been promoting all month as he prepared for last weekend's inaugural gala, notably the gradual rollback of the car tax, funding for 4,000 new teachers and political unity between Republicans and Democrats.

The governor invoked icons of state politics – from legendary Gov. Harry F. Byrd to patriots such as Patrick Henry – to press his low-tax, restrained-government message.

"Let me extend ... good will to all of you, whatever your party, whatever your philosophy and wherever you come from in this commonwealth," Gilmore told senators and delegates quote20 "From our point of view, he appears to be trying to be inclusive, and we weren't dealing with that four years ago."

– Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax)

gathered in the ornate House chamber. "My door is open to you and to all Virginians."

M. Boyd Marcus Jr., a longtime GOP operative who has ascended to be Gilmore's chief of staff, said Gilmore hoped to "set a tone with the General Assembly, a tone of cooperation, but also say his priorities are clear, especially on the car tax and 4,000 new teachers."

"For most governors, it's a honeymoon," Marcus said of the legislative sessions for incoming chief executives. "You set forth your vision, and it sets a great tone for the rest of the four years."

In recent days, lawmakers and others, who have watched Gilmore as attorney general and now as a new governor, praised him more for who he is not: the recently departed Gov. George Allen, who struck a combative pose with the assembly. Those feelings persisted tonight.

"It's red meat for his supporters; he's staying in the conservative camp," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "But from our point of view, he appears to be trying to be inclusive, and we weren't dealing with that four years ago."

Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said it was "very smart that he has a limited agenda and that he's concentrating on education."

"He needs to be on-point and articulate in his agenda for this session and the years to come," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford).

Two longtime municipal government lobbyists expressed guarded optimism that Gilmore's voucher program would guarantee localities' being reimbursed accurately for the money they would stop collecting as the car-tax cut is imposed.

"It's a creative approach," said Suzette Denslow, deputy director of the Virginia Municipal League. "Clearly, he is responding to localities."

Memory Porter, Loudoun County's chief advocate in Richmond, said Gilmore "seems to have a plan that could work. We're always going to be nervous, but if it's vouchers, that may protect us."

In the months ahead, Gilmore may be a beneficiary of a robust Virginia economy – which is a key to killing the car tax – and he put a marker down tonight about how frugal he will be with any excess cash coming into the treasury.

Although he was speaking at the time of higher education, he offered his fiscal philosophy: "We have for too long spent whatever money could be found to fund various projects, most of them worthy, on our college campuses. We must resist the temptation to make commitments, which at this time may or may not be justified."

C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke), the House Democratic leader, was skeptical of Gilmore's statement that continued growth in state revenue would allow Virginia to cut the car tax without having to slice its budget to pay for it.

"You cannot do tax cuts of the magnitude being discussed here without cutting something," Cranwell said. "Can we do this? Absolutely. Without pain? Absolutely not."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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