Gov. John N. Dalton, in a rare public challenge to his legislative foes, today threatened drastic cuts in state aid to schools and other local government services if the General Assembly passes a bill partially repealing Virginia's sales tax on food.
While stopping short of promising to veto such a measure, the Republican governor outlined at a hastily called press conference this morning what he called "the consequences" of the repeal bill. It would cut in half the present 4 percent tax at a cost of $244 million in anticipated state revenues during its first two years, Dalton said.
"I don't think you can cut taxes and not cut services," said Dalton, adding that he considered any attempt to do so "irresponsible lawmaking."
Dalton's warning was angrily denounced by the bill's sponsor, House Finance Chairman Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wythe) as "gubernatorial blackmail. . . He's talking about socking it to the very people [the localities] that we've been trying to protect. And when he starts interfering even before we've voted on a bill he's guilty of an absolute abrogation of his powers."
The governor's remarks appeared to be part of an effort by Dalton and his allies to kill the bill, which many legislators believe has at least an even chance of passage in the House of Delegates. The showdown, which should come later this week, is the first major test of strength between Dalton and maverick lawmakers who are pushing for some sort of tax relief during this election year.
Dalton has been at war with the mavericks, led by Campbell, since the session began last month over the amount of surplus money in the state treasury -- Dalton estimates it at $201 million, but Campbell contends it's at least $300 million -- and over whether the money should go to existing state programs or toward a tax cut.
The governor said he was surprised to learn Friday that Campbell's tax-cut bill had won narrow approval from the House Finance Committee. One top Dalton adviser said that during last weekend's legislative junket to Northern Virginia, the governor and his aides realized that the bill was gaining support among the campaign-conscious delegates, who are up for reelection this fall.
In striking back, the governor singled out programs that are dear to the hearts of many lawmakers. He threatened to cut about $60 million from projected state aid to local schools and to eliminate another $185 million in aid to localities. He predicted the cut, provided it would be made up by local funds, would increase local property taxes throughout the state by 8 percent.
Dalton also accused repeal supporters of playing politics. "It's always easy to cut taxes," he said.
Should the bill pass the House, Dalton's supporters expect it to die quietly in the Senate Finance Committee, whose influential chairman, Dalton ally Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), predicted today that it would get "at most, five votes" from the 15-member panel. But other lawmakers believe Dalton's threat could backfire, forcing some Democrats to support repeal to avoid being branded as Dalton supporters during the fall campaign.