Va. Lawmakers Agree on Roads, Food-Tax Issues
By Donald P. Baker and Craig Timberg
RICHMOND, Feb. 9 – Lawmakers reached agreement at today's halfway point in the Virginia General Assembly session on two major issues: providing funding for traffic-clogged Northern Virginia roads and relief from the state's sales tax on food.
The House of Delegates and the state Senate approved $208 million in new borrowing, half of it earmarked for improvements to Routes 1, 7, 15 and 123 in the Washington suburbs.
Delegates also followed the Senate's lead and approved a reduction of a half-cent per dollar in the sales tax on food effective Jan. 1.
That vote, along with the approval of the highway bonds, all but assured passage of those measures by the time the session ends Feb. 27.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has indicated that he will sign the food tax bill, even though it would begin sooner than he believes is prudent, but he remains concerned that the highway funding bonds are too costly and might upset the balance of the state's overall transportation plan.
Lawmakers from the Hampton Roads area complained that their region, second in population to Northern Virginia, is left out of the deal, which gives $104 million to Northern Virginia and $104 million for Route 58, which runs across the southern edge of the state.
"At least we're not jabbing each other on party lines. Now we're jabbing each other on regional lines," Del. Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said before the 86 to 14 vote. The bond bills had passed the Senate by 36 to 4.
The House Republican floor leader, Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (Amherst), called the bond package "a conspiracy to rob the highway trust fund."
Gilmore repeated his concern about the amount of new debt being approved by lawmakers, saying it now totals $1.1 billion.
Mark A. Miner, the governor's spokesman, said the $5 million needed to cover this year's debt service on the highway bonds is available, but he isn't sure where the $15 million to $18 million will come from in future years.
"We can't keep living for today," said Miner, adding that Gilmore "needs to see how this fits in the overall transportation picture."
The food tax eventually would go from 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent under the General Assembly bills.
Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who first tried to kill the food tax in 1968, shortly after it was imposed, said he was elated by today's unanimous vote.
"It's the crowning jewel of my career," Callahan said. "When you tax the food they eat, it's just an evil tax."
The cut approved today, and earlier this month by the Senate, would begin six months earlier than proposed by Gilmore but not as soon as sought by Democrats.
Because the House and Senate versions differ slightly, the two chambers will have to agree on a single approach before the session ends.
The unanimous vote on the food tax came moments after delegates rejected, by a vote of 51 to 49, an amendment offered by House Democratic Leader C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke) that would have reduced the tax by one-half cent beginning Aug. 1 and then a penny a year until July 2003, when the entire tax would be eliminated.
Cranwell's proposal failed. One Democrat, Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., of Chesapeake, joined with the House's 49 Republicans and one independent to defeat it.
Miner said the governor, who had proposed that the tax reduction begin July 1, 2000, "can support" the earlier start because a booming economy has given Gilmore and the lawmakers a nearly $90 million surplus to play with.
Gilmore repeatedly has said that he would veto any measure that would imperil the schedule for eliminating the personal property tax on cars, which was the cornerstone of his successful 1997 election campaign.
In arguing for an accelerated schedule, Cranwell told the delegates: "If you really want to get rid of the sales tax on food, if you want to wipe it out . . . this is the place, this is the time and we're the folks to do it. Don't do it halfway."
Many issues in the first month of this year's short session were decided along strict party line votes. Republicans control the Senate 21 to 19, while the House is a virtual deadlock, with 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one GOP-leaning independent. But today, several Republicans split with the governor on prominent issues.
Michele Finn's Fees
A claims bill that would reimburse $48,000 in legal fees to Michele P. Finn in the right-to-die case of her husband, Hugh, sailed through the Senate on a 34 to 6 vote.
The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), said the state should be required to cover Michele Finn's legal fees because she incurred them after Gilmore intervened and tried to prevent her from withdrawing food and water from her brain-damaged husband.
In November, a Prince William County Circuit Court judge ordered the state to reimburse Michele Finn the $13,000 in legal fees plus costs she incurred because of the governor's action. But Gilmore is appealing that ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court, and Michele Finn says she has incurred an additional $48,000 in legal costs fighting that appeal.
Miner said Gilmore would consider vetoing the legislation.
The delegates also asserted their independence from Gilmore by approving by 65 to 35 a formula for distribution of lottery profits that the governor opposes. Gilmore wants to send $123 million to localities this year and a similar amount next year and leave to the local governments how the money should be spent.
The House bill combines those amounts and adds an additional $65 million and makes all $310 million available beginning July 1. It also largely limits the spending of lottery profits to school construction projects.
Gilmore expressed disappointment with the House action, saying, "It will not put one new teacher in our classrooms; it will not allow our localities to raise our hard-working teachers' salaries by one cent; and it will not enable us to address one of our most pressing concerns: the Standards of Learning," the state-mandated goals for Virginia's schools.
Del. Anne G. Rhodes, of Richmond, one of 15 Republican delegates who deserted Gilmore on the lottery distribution bill, called school construction "a state responsibility. We have all over this state falling-down schools."
Staff writer R.H. Melton contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company