Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell said yesterday that his Republican legislative majority will not raise taxes as part of any state tax code restructuring, setting up a likely confrontation with Gov. Mark R. Warner and other Democrats seeking new sources of education funding.
"I don't think Virginians feel they're under-taxed," said Howell (R-Stafford). "The people I talk to, by and large, don't say, 'Raise my taxes.' "
Howell added that although there may be a consensus to modernize Virginia's antiquated tax code, "I don't think it's an opportunity for a tax hike, and I don't think you're going to see it."
Howell's remarks, in a luncheon interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, put him squarely at odds with Warner, who recently pledged to make a "direct case" for a tax code overhaul to increase the state money available for schools. Warner said the major tax restructuring he plans to introduce to the legislature would not be "revenue-neutral," meaning it would entail at least some tax increases.
As speaker of the 100-member House, a post he assumed this year after his predecessor was forced out in a sexual harassment scandal, Howell controls a caucus of 64 Republicans that can effectively block any initiative by Warner or his allies in the Senate. Howell, who has represented the Fredericksburg area since 1988, said he would not shy away from a major political showdown with Warner over taxes, even if the governor tried to paint him and his House colleagues as obstructionists.
"We run for office every two years. If we're out of touch with our constituents, they'll let us know," said Howell, whose seat, along with those of all delegates, is on the Nov. 4 ballot. "That's what this whole process is about, for Governor Warner to come up with his ideas and the legislature to come up with their ideas and work them out.
"And if they can't work them out, then they're both responsible to the public," Howell said.
Kevin D. Hall, a Warner spokesman, said, "The governor has consistently said that the goal here is to make the state's outmoded tax system more fair and more reflective of a 21st-century economy.
"Other leaders in the assembly have said you can't enter the process with preconditions," Hall added.
Warner has offered no specific timetable for presenting his tax restructuring proposal to the General Assembly, but Hall said yesterday the governor's goal is to have a plan drafted in time for the 2004 legislative session, which convenes in January. Howell said time was running out.
"If that's going to be his legacy, don't you think it's about time he got started on it?" Howell said.
In his first months as speaker, which followed the overwhelming defeat of sales tax increases pushed by Warner, Howell has been careful to remain responsive to a House Republican caucus that in recent years embraced tax cuts as sound policy and good politics in an increasingly conservative state.
Howell's remarks yesterday were not the first time he had tweaked Warner. For instance, during the General Assembly session, the speaker said the two leaders had no working relationship, in part because Warner was not solicitous of his views on issues.
In the interview, Howell sharpened his critique a bit, saying Warner had failed to keep a 2001 campaign pledge to push for tax reform by now and contrasting the governor's leadership on tax issues with recent Democratic and Republican predecessors who used the bully pulpit to build their cases for increasing state revenue through sales and gasoline taxes and fees.
"The fundamental problem is, if you look at tax reform in Virginia in the 20th century, it's always been led by the executive," Howell said. "I haven't seen that come out of this executive office yet, and I think it's going to have to.
"Just given the nature of the legislative body, where you've got two very different bodies in the Senate and the House, coming up with a coherent plan between those bodies is going to be difficult at best," Howell added. "It is kind of a little disconcerting that this governor said that by 2003 he'd have a plan and doesn't at this time, as far as I know, even have plans to make a plan."