Gov. Mark R. Warner sought today to move past the crushing defeat of the Northern Virginia sales tax increase, blaming it on a "sobering" voter distrust toward "every level of government."
"It really was death by a thousand cuts," Warner told reporters at a state Capitol news conference. "There were a whole series of things that came together, and what was fairly broad support at one point just kept getting nibbled away, nibbled away."
But fellow Democrats and the Republicans who dominate state politics said Warner cannot shrug off the harsh reality of fellow Northern Virginians turning out Tuesday to decisively reject the funding effort he championed last year as a candidate and this fall as the state's chief executive.
"Any time you put your political capital on the line and lose, it's got to hurt," said incoming House speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).
While by no means a fatal blow, the no vote was a serious setback for a hands-on manager who prides himself on bringing different people together for shared goals, in this case, the passage of a sales tax increase that would have generated $5 billion for local roads and mass transit, leaders of both parties said.
Administration officials and senior legislators said the sales tax defeat raises serious questions about the staying power of the bipartisan coalition that Warner stitched together, both at the General Assembly in Richmond and back home, to work for passage of the sales tax increase.
Some Warner allies said they fear that moderate Republicans who worked with the Democratic governor may bolt the coalition rather than antagonize potential primary election challengers in 2003, when all 140 assembly seats will be on the ballot.
"We need to put that behind us," said Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax), a strong supporter of Warner's on the sales tax increase. "Even those who didn't support the referendum know we've got a critical problem on the budget."
Warner's role as the region's leading ambassador in Richmond could also be hurt by the sales tax defeat, others said. Warner and other suburbanites will likely face increased resistance when asking lawmakers to be generous to a region that flatly rejected a referendum measure the General Assembly reluctantly agreed to in the first place.
"I don't think that in the long run he's going to rise and fall on this, but it would have been to his best interest and the state's best interest if it had passed," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington).
Although anti-tax sentiments were a major component of the defeat Tuesday, the result by itself did not slam any doors shut on Warner or the Republican-led legislature regarding taxes. Both sides had already rejected broad-based tax increases as an option, planning instead major cuts to close the $1 billion budget gap that remains from the nearly $6 billion two-year shortfall that the governor and legislature worked to resolve this year.
If anything, elected officials said, Tuesday's message to the governor and legislature was: Make do with the tax revenue that state government already has.
"It forces the governor and General Assembly to do what we should do -- spending cuts, not tax increases," said state Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover), an emerging statewide leader of anti-tax Republicans. "They want us to do what business and families do when times get tough, which is tighten our belts."
Nevertheless, passage of the tax increase would have strengthened Warner's hand as he and lawmakers hammer out probable cuts in K-12 education and Medicaid eligibility, lawmakers said.
"Short-term on the budget, he's hurt because the anti-taxers have renewed energy and are emboldened," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria). "They see a kind of affirmation that you can't trust Richmond and that state government has a big pot of money it doesn't spend very well."
Leaders of both parties also said they fear that regional warfare could break out if anti-referendum legislators follow through on their promise to overhaul state funding formulas to substantially increase Northern Virginia's share of transportation money.
State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), who won a special election in August by campaigning against the tax increase, said one of his top priorities will be a measure that sends a share of sales tax revenue back to the locality where the money was raised, dedicating the funds to transportation.
Cuccinelli and others said they also will push for a constitutional amendment that would protect the transportation trust fund from raids by governors and legislatures trying to balance the budget.
Though a legislative novice, Cuccinelli said, he hopes to build statewide coalitions to enhance transportation funding for Northern Virginia.
"It's important that I be working with a substantial group of allies," Cuccinelli said. "We're in a budget crunch, and what happened last night will have a bearing on how we address it this winter and for the next several years."
"But to maintain the trust of the voters, we have to do it without tax increases," Cuccinelli added. "That's the single clearest message from what happened on Tuesday."
Without dwelling on the anti-tax message in the sales tax vote, Warner said he has worked hard to gain taxpayers' trust by imposing budget discipline on state government and sharing the seriousness of the budget crisis with the public. Warner used an Oct. 15 statewide TV address to announce $858 million in emergency cuts at a host of state agencies.
"There are clearly things we're trying to do here in Richmond," said Warner, citing management changes at the troubled Virginia Department of Transportation "to make it more accountable."
"I've got some other ideas on how we can continue to restore that trust, which is critical," he said. "Listen, I think what we've done with the budget, what we've done with VDOT, has started that process."
"Are we all the way there? Obviously not," Warner said.