Car Tax Phaseout Splits Virginia Republicans

 
A veteran of a thousand political wars, Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III barely blinks when opponents call him single-minded, dictatorial and even hallucinatory.

Gilmore expected to become a lightning rod when he was appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee in January. But he may never have guessed that his most vociferous critics would be fellow Republicans back home.

Gilmore's determination this year to continue cutting the personal property taxes on cars in a teetering state economy has ignited war in Virginia's General Assembly and caused many once-friendly GOP lawmakers to question their leader's uncompromising style.

"'Obstinate' is the word,'' said Sen. John H. Chichester, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in describing Gilmore. "Oh, I've dealt with obstinate people before, but never in a realm that involved so many lives."

Gilmore swept to election in 1997 on a promise to phase out over five years the personal property tax on the first $20,000 of assessed value of privately-owned vehicles.

He's insisted that the legislature stick to this year's scheduled 70 percent reduction, a position backed by the House of Delegates. But the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to go higher than 55 percent, arguing that Virginia can not afford more tax relief this year. The stalemate forced the General Assembly to an unprecedented adjournment this winter without approving a state budget.The deadlock gave Gilmore control of the state budget. The governor, however can not approriate money unilaterally, he can only cut programs. As a result, Gilmore has balanced the budget by keeping by keeping intact this year's pre-approved car tax reduction and cutting $421 million in spending to help pay for it.

About $275 million of the cuts have fallen on state colleges, which have been forced to defer construction financed with general funds.

The remaining $146 million will come from state agency cuts --including public safety and the environment.

The true victims of the impasse, however, may be teachers and state employees. Because Gilmore cannot appropriate money, they may have to sacrifice planned 3.5 percent raises this year.

What's ensued has been an outbreak of finger pointing and name calling hardly in keeping with Virginia's genteel political traditions.

Most members of the Republican-controlled Senate are pooling campaign funds to launch a public relations effort against Gilmore's tax cut. Sen. Thomas K. Norment, the Republican floor leader, has questioned whether ``hallucinogenic mushrooms'' are being snuck into the governor's food. An enraged Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, a Virginia Beach Republican, demanded a state police investigation in February after accusing Gilmore operatives of listening in on his phone conversations with constituents.

No wrongdoing was found.

Gilmore, in return, has taken to the airwaves urging the defeat of any legislator -- Democrat or Republican -- who opposes his stand. Many GOP loyalists worry the division could threaten their party's recently-won hegemony this fall in statewide races governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.

Gilmore, 51, is not up for re-election. Virginia is the only state that bars its governor from serving successive terms.

What foes describe as Gilmore's confrontational and uncompromising ways, friends see as a steadfast loyalty to words, commitments and people who have helped his career.

Gilmore's self-described ``common man'' ethos is rooted in his upbringing as the only son of a Richmond meat cutter. Gilmore's voice sneers in acknowledgment of a me-against-the-world mentality when he describes class barriers he overcame in grinding his way to the governorship. Add in his background as a hard-nosed prosecutor, and Gilmore's black-and-white stand on the car tax seems within character.

"I made a sacred commitment to the people to end the car tax when I ran for governor," Gilmore said recently. "Not to deliver the tax cut would be a breach of faith. There's another reason, too. This tax cut really matters financially to working-class people. I know that keenly. I hear that from them all the time.""This is not a role I wanted,'' he added. ``The duty falls on me, as governor, to cut the budget. But the responsibility rests with the Senate."

Senate leaders have accused Gilmore of breaking a campaign commitment not to press the car-tax cut if the economy softens. They note that Gilmore artificially inflated state revenues to reach tax-cut triggers by including money from a multistate settlement with tobacco companies.

For all the infighting, Virginians are not quick to take sides. A recent survey of 625 registered state voters by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. found 56 percent supporting Gilmore's tax cut for this year and 41 percent opposing it. The numbers dropped to nearly even when voters were told the tax cut would require spending reductions.

And while Gilmore and the Senate refuse to budge, 53 percent said they would support a compromise on the tax plan this year, 42 percent said they would oppose one.

President George H. Bush, who named Gilmore RNC chairman, has steered clear of the Virginia controversy. Bush has displayed a philosophical kinship with Gilmore this winter by refusing to compromise on a $1.6 trillion tax cut he promised during last fall's campaign.

The standoff has caused Gilmore some embarrassment, however. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he accused the Virginia senate of "trying to tear me down nationally in order to get me to go back on my promise to the people.

"That's just not going to happen," he said.
 
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