Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner today vetoed a proposed estate tax repeal that General Assembly Republicans championed this legislative election year despite Virginia's persistent state budget crisis.
Warner also vetoed a bill authorizing the state to issue a "Choose Life" license plate, which abortion opponents had won over the protests of abortion rights advocates and others who complained about the message. In addition, Warner returned measures on certain late-term abortions and parental consent for minors' abortions to the legislature with proposed amendments.
On a marathon day of executive action on bills passed during the assembly's winter session, Warner condemned the proposed estate tax cut as "irresponsible" during a fiscal crisis that he said may warrant the attention of a special budget-cutting legislative session this fall, just days before the Nov. 4 elections for all 140 assembly seats.
"We're still in the crunch," Warner said, alluding to weak tax collections and escalating state costs associated with terrorism preparedness.
Warner's Democratic allies in the legislature -- some of whom defected to vote for the estate tax repeal -- and Republican proponents said the governor may be unable to fend off an override when lawmakers return to Richmond next week for a brief mop-up session. Last year, Warner's first as governor, he issued one veto, which was sustained.
The House of Delegates, with its overwhelming GOP majority, is sure to override Warner on the estate tax bill, but the vote is less predictable in the more evenly divided Senate, where the repeal passed with barely enough votes to support an override. Warner has been wooing the Senate's 17 Democrats as a bloc, most recently Sunday night over an Executive Mansion dinner of filet mignon and spinach pasta.
"Can we sustain the veto? Possibly," said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
Democratic Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (Fairfax), who holds a critical vote, said she would support upholding Warner's veto, even though she voted for the repeal bill in the winter session.
"I've learned more about it, that most of the money goes to a very few people," Puller said.
Leaders of a statewide coalition that lobbied hard for estate tax repeal said they were mounting a final push before the April 2 session, mobilizing association members and others in a district-by-district effort to override the veto.
"They will hear from us," said John B. Nicholson, leader of the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which has 19,000 state members.
Nicholson, 66, said he has operated Company Flowers in Arlington for 11 years, reaching $1 million in sales while awaiting his daughter's return to the family business.
"I hope that we won't have to worry about this blasted tax when that time arrives," Nicholson said.
During the winter session, estate tax repeal became a rallying point for both parties heading into what promises to be an intense fall campaign.
Republicans, who hope to consolidate their legislative majority in the Nov. 4 elections, said Virginia's 16 percent tax on the estates of millionaires would drive not only wealthy families from the state but also small-business owners and family farmers who have struggled for years to build their fortunes.
The federal government and many other states also have been phasing out the tax, proponents noted.
Warner and other Democrats sounded a populist note, arguing that the state should fulfill its promises to repeal the car tax and food tax before it helps the most affluent. They also said a tax cut that would remove up to $130 million annually from the revenue stream was ill-timed in an era of economic uncertainty and an anemic state treasury.
"Estate tax reform should be a part" of a broader restructuring of Virginia's outmoded tax code, Warner said in his veto statement. "This piecemeal approach to tax reform is inappropriate."
Warner advisers said his tough stance against estate tax repeal could signal a more combative approach to Republican legislative leaders, with whom he had generally amicable relations last year as the two sides compromised to close a $6 billion shortfall.
On another budget issue -- a modest pay raise for teachers and other civil servants -- Warner chided GOP lawmakers for making the salary increases contingent on an improved economy. He said he would cut the budget to fund the raises, if it came to that.
Similarly, in announcing that he was considering a special session on the budget this fall, Warner seemed to relish the prospect of forcing Republicans into the political bind of voting on budget-balancing cuts shortly before they face reelection.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) played down the likelihood of a special session, saying he believed "the revenues are going to be there" to fund the public employee raises.
On the abortion-related bills, Warner asked the legislature to amend a measure on "partial-birth infanticide" to create what he called a "narrowly tailored exception to protect the physical health of the mother."
On the parental consent bill, Warner proposed an amendment striking the requirement that the consent be certified by a notary public.
Victoria Cobb, a spokeswoman for the Family Foundation, said her group objected to Warner's proposed changes, as well as his veto of the "Choose Life" license tag.
In the case of the amendments, "what we're looking at here is an attempt to appear to be in favor of the legislation, while removing the very essence of the bills," Cobb said.