Think back to the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," and the scene in which a distraught George Bailey, played by James Stewart, staggers onto a bridge and wishes he had never been born.

Now imagine if, instead, Bailey had thought the following: "I wish Virginia had never fought over the budget and taxes in 2004."


No proposal by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to raise some taxes and lower others. No extended legislative session or budget deadlock. No fracture of the state GOP. No maverick delegates voting with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. No increase in sales and cigarette taxes.

What would have happened?

That question is being asked in Richmond, and by the candidates for governor. The answer is, of course, unknowable (because life isn't a Frank Capra movie). But that doesn't stop politicians from offering opinions.

Warner and his allies, including Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate for governor, say the state would be in dire shape if taxes had not been raised a year ago.

They say the state's AAA bond rating, a mark of financial stability it has held since the 1930s, would have been stripped by rating agencies. There would have been less money for education and health care and sheriff's deputies, they insist. And the state never would have been named the "best-managed in the nation" by Governing Magazine, they argue.

Secretary of Finance John M. Bennett made that case to skeptical members of the House Appropriations Committee recently. He told them he had no regrets about pushing the tax package during the 2004 session.

It was about "the long term," Bennett said, and about bringing expenses and revenues back into line after years of tax cuts and runaway spending during the dot-com boom.

Kaine regularly makes the same argument. In a speech last week, he told Northern Virginia business executives that the state's recent investment of $850 million in transportation was made possible "for one reason . . . because we did budget reform last year."

Opponents of the tax increase have a different answer to the question. It can be summed up in one word: surplus.

In the year since the tax vote, the national and state economies have roared to life, pumping excess revenue into state accounts. At the same meeting where Bennett defended the tax increase, he told lawmakers that state revenue has grown by more than 15 percent.

That left Republican lawmakers a bit slack-jawed.

Wait a minute, they said. How can you argue that the tax increase was necessary when the state has hundreds of millions of dollars more than it thought it would?

Former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor, said that Warner and the moderate Republicans who passed the tax increase should have been more patient.

If they had just waited, he said, they would have seen the economy turn around, the money roll in, and the need for the tax increase evaporate -- just as Kilgore predicted it would during the session.

Speaking to the same group of business executives last week in Northern Virginia, Kilgore said the surplus proves that the tax increases were not necessary.

"I proudly opposed the tax increases. I still oppose the tax increases," he said. "I've been proven right. The economy is on the move, and we've grown by $1.7 billion in new revenue since they passed the tax increases."

The debate is likely to rage until the 2005 election and into the 2006 General Assembly session, during which another battle over taxes -- this time for transportation -- will be shaped by perceptions lingering from the last one.

For the rest of this year, Warner and Kaine will continue to argue that the surplus is a one-time "bubble" that can't be counted on to provide stable, continuing revenue for nurses and police and teachers and state programs.

Kilgore and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), the leader of the anti-tax forces in the House of Delegates, will insist that the recent growth is sustainable and made the tax hikes unnecessary.

So who's right?

We'll never know -- unless an angel named Clarence appears to show us how life might have been if politicians had not convened in Richmond on Jan. 14, 2004.

Secretary of Finance John M. Bennett told a House panel state revenue has grown by more than 15 percent since the 2004 tax increases.