-- Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner and Virginia's business community dueled today over the veto he issued on a proposal to repeal the estate tax, but neither side could claim enough legislative votes for victory next week in the General Assembly's reconvened session.
Warner administration officials expressed confidence that lawmakers would uphold his veto when they return to Richmond on April 2 to consider that and other executive actions on a fraction of the more than 1,000 bills and the state budget enacted in the assembly's winter session.
Meanwhile, leaders of a statewide coalition of small and large businesses launched a lobbying effort for votes to overturn Warner's decision. The House of Delegates is expected to override the veto by a wide margin, but in the state Senate, both sides of the fight agreed that a handful of votes either way would determine the outcome.
"We'll find out, sitting there watching the board" that tallies the Senate votes electronically, said Donna Pugh Johnson, president of the Richmond-based Virginia Agribusiness Council. The council, an association of 40,000 farming and forestry employees, is urging rural senators to override Warner.
Warner, appearing on his monthly WTOP radio show and later at a state Capitol news briefing, reiterated his case for the veto, saying it would be imprudent to curtail an estimated $130 million in annual estate tax revenue as Virginia continues struggling with a severe budget crunch.
"When we've had to [close] a $6 billion shortfall, when we have unforeseen costs that may arise from homeland security, when we've got an economy that's teetering -- this is not the right time," Warner told reporters.
Warner has pulled out all the stops to win a legislative victory on what is only the second major veto of his term; his one veto last year, against a proposed abortion restriction, was upheld.
Warner wooed 16 of the Senate's 17 Democrats with a banquet Sunday night at his official Richmond residence, giving them a partisan pep talk and boasting of the more than $572,000 in his political action committee that he may use in the Nov. 4 elections, when all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot, party leaders said.
As several senior staffers looked on, Warner asked for a show of hands from those in favor of the estate tax veto, according to several senators at the dinner.
"I didn't put my hand up," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), adding that he is undecided and therefore a pivotal vote next week.
"We take out $850 million every year for the car tax repeal, and now we're going to add $130 million to that?" Colgan said. "I have a little problem with that." However, Colgan said, taxpayers have a right to resent the confiscatory nature of the tax on their loved ones' estates.
Virginia exacts a 16 percent tax on estates valued at $1 million or more. Thirty states and the U.S. government have taken steps to eliminate their versions of the levy.
Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), who represents largely Republican suburbs outlying Washington, said he plans to vote against Warner on the estate tax, while Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who voted for and against the repeal during the session, said she endorsed the governor's veto.
Colgan, Houck and Howell said they had been lobbied to by both sides to varying degrees. For instance, Colgan said he received a mailed appeal today from five business groups favoring an override, and Houck said farm cooperatives and other agribusinesses in his district have launched an "intense" effort supporting an override.
Howell said she has received 60 e-mails in what appeared to be an orchestrated statewide campaign for an override. Six local e-mails on the issue were split evenly, Howell added.
"It just wouldn't be honest with the voters to promise them this large tax break when we haven't eliminated the car tax and the sales tax on food -- which were also promises," Howell said.
T.R. Cook, whose Vienna photography studio was in Howell's district until recently, said he would be urging her to help out small businesses such as his by overriding Warner's veto.
"It's pretty ridiculous . . . double taxation," said Cook, 73, who started his studio in 1965. Now it has more than $1 million in assets.
"You pay taxes as long as you live, legally as you should, and then when you're gone, the feds and the state take 55 percent of what's left."