Va. Democrats' Version of Food-Tax Cut Gains
By Craig Timberg
RICHMOND, Feb. 3—The Democratic version of the food-tax cut, which would slice the sales tax on groceries nearly in half by July 2000, passed the Senate Finance Committee today with the help of state Sen. Warren E. Barry, a Fairfax Republican.
Both parties favor cutting the food tax from 4 1/2 percent to 2 1/2 percent, but the fight over how quickly to do it -- and who gets bragging rights for the accomplishment -- has been one of the most partisan issues of the General Assembly session. Today's vote sends the faster Democratic version to the Senate.
Also today, bills to limit out-of-state garbage and bring $300 million in highway money to Northern Virginia moved forward. But prospects faded for several bills aimed at controlling the pace of residential development, angering leaders of Loudoun County and other fast-growing communities hoping for new tools to manage expensive housing booms.
On the food-tax cut, Barry and one other Republican crossed Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), who in November joined Democrats in calling for a reduction. The governor's version would take full effect in 2003 -- three years after the Democrats' proposal would. Either version eventually would cost $245 million a year when fully phased in.
"Gilmore doesn't direct my life down here," Barry said. "I'm down here to represent a constituency, not to please or displease the governor."
After today's vote, Gilmore renewed his warning against any measure that threatens the financial viability of his signature car-tax cut, which is being phased in over five years and eventually will cost $1 billion annually.
"Any further phaseout [of the food tax] must be done in a fiscally responsible way," Gilmore said. "We're not going to break one promise to keep another."
Legislative committees worked today to approve or reject thousands of bills before next week's "crossover day," when House bills must go to the Senate and vice versa.
But the talk among some Northern Virginia lawmakers focused on action late Tuesday night, when a Senate committee killed a series of growth-control bills in a meeting that ran until midnight.
A House committee still could revive the measures in a meeting Thursday morning, but lawmakers say the chances are slim.
The proposals include giving local officials authority to limit construction of homes in areas that don't have the schools and roads to accommodate them, and giving localities greater latitude in charging fees to developers to finance schools and services required by new residents.
A growth study committee, headed by Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Fairfax), plans to revisit the issues after the session ends this month.
"I don't think the legislature is ready yet to give the localities additional tools to deal with growth," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington). "It doesn't affect enough legislators yet."
The votes left members of a coalition of high-growth counties fuming.
In Loudoun, where officials say a surging population is crowding schools, clogging roads and driving up county debt, supervisors declared that lawmakers were representing developers, not residents. Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), head of the coalition, said the building industry had mischaracterized the group's agenda as "anti-growth" to state lawmakers.
"They're uneducated, or they're stupid or they're liars," York said. "If you don't have the money to manage the growth and you don't have the power to slow it down, it's going to kill us."
Prospects were far better for proposed controls on Virginia's booming garbage industry. Gilmore's proposal to tighten inspections, ban garbage barges and freeze dump capacity at last year's levels passed a House committee. The committee also approved fees of as much as $2 a ton on garbage dumped at Virginia landfills, though Gilmore opposes that measure, calling it a tax increase.
Still, Gilmore may face trouble in the House on the garbage barge ban. Several Northern Virginia lawmakers oppose it on grounds that it could result in more trucks on Washington area highways such as Interstate 95 and Route 301.
No barges now carry garbage to Virginia, but industry giant Waste Management plans this spring to begin bringing three barges a week up the James River. Company officials say that could mean 1,500 fewer trucks a week -- 750 heading in each direction -- on Washington area highways; each barge carries the equivalent of 200 to 300 tractor-trailers of garbage.
Supporters of the barge ban dismiss that logic, saying allowing barges would simply mean more garbage, not fewer trucks. But the industry won some converts today. "If you put 300 trucks on a barge, and you ban the barges, then the trucks have to get through some other way," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax).
Also today, Northern Virginia lawmakers won committee approval for their request for $300 million in new borrowing for highway projects. If approved, $104 million would come to the region immediately for improvements on Route 7, Route 15, Route 123 and U.S. 1.
The region's delegates have joined forces with a group of rural, downstate lawmakers who are trying to win $300 million of their own to complete U.S. 58 along the southern border of Virginia. The overall package of $659 million in new borrowing includes $59 million in mass transit money statewide.
The Gilmore administration, however, expressed concern about how the money would be repaid. The bill passed by a House committee today would tap the state's Transportation Trust Fund, but Gilmore opposes that because it would divert money from other transportation needs.
Meanwhile, a Senate committee, with one dissenting vote, approved a measure endorsed by Lt. Gov. John H. Hager (R) that would enable police officers to stop motorists for the sole offense of not wearing a seat belt. Hager's proposal already has died in the House, making its final passage unlikely.
Staff writers Justin Blum, R.H. Melton and Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.
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