Jones’ role in budget deal recounted

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 10, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

A pickup game of basketball in March between Suffolk Del. Chris Jones and Gov. Mark Warner helped achieve the compromise that resulted in the passage last week of Virginia’s historic budget agreement and tax plan.

A fascinating account of the behind-the-scenes lobbying and discussions that led to the budget agreement-including the central role played by Suffolk’s Jones – appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.


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Post reporter Michael D. Shear wrote that his account of how the budget and tax plan evolved was based on interviews with Warner administration officials, lobbyists and lawmakers who attended closed-door meeting or participated in private discussions. He wrote that in some cases, officials shared documents or notes and often requested anonymity in exchange for detailed descriptions. He prefaced the details by writing that &uot;The actions taken during the Virginia General Assembly session that ended Friday will reverberate for years.&uot;

Just last Friday, the Virginia House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a new state budget, bringing to a contentious close an unprecedented 115 days the General Assembly had been in session without a budget. It included $1.4 billion tax increase package to fund core services – primarily education – but does not address transportation needs.

The tax bill will net about $984 million for the state’s primary operating account, the general fund, and sets aside $377 million earmarked for localities to use exclusively for public schools.

It closes loopholes corporations use to funnel profits outside Virginia tax-free and eliminates some sales tax exemptions for public utilities. It increases the personal income tax exemption and wipes out the so-called marriage penalty.

It also imposes a means test that will make some affluent seniors ineligible for an age deduction now available to taxpayers 65 and older. People already that age will not lose their tax break, however.

The bill contains some tax relief. The personal exemption increases from $800 to $900. The sales tax on food will decrease over three years from 4 percent to 2.5 percent.

According to Shear, after tiptoeing for two years around a General Assembly controlled by Republicans, the Democratic governor &uot;took aim this year at a schism in the House of Delegates between GOP moderates and anti-tax conservatives.

&uot;His audacious goal: To find enough sympathetic Republicans to revamp the state’s tax code and pass a big tax increase.&uot;

The story recounts numerous breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with GOP delegates and senators that the governor’s staff had deemed that Warner may be able to persuade over to his way of thinking.

House Speaker William J. Howell, an ardent anti-taxer, was determined to defeat Warner’s effort to break Howell’s caucus.

Shear reports how Howell, Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), a confidant of the governor, Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg) and Jones, met at the speaker’s favorite hangout called the 4th Street Caf\u00E9 that is open 24 hours.

&uot;There, the Republican lawmakers sketched out a plan on the back of a napkin: Raise $158 million by limiting tax exemptions for seniors, $185 million through a higher tax on car titles, $200 million with a higher cigarette tax, and some other smaller increases. The total raised: about $911 million, without a sales or income tax increase.&uot;

Warner balked at the proposal.

Shear describes Jones as a &uot;member of the speaker’s inner circle&uot; and said he &uot;was growing increasingly concerned about what he saw as the lack of a coherent strategy.&uot;

Shear writes that on March 19, Jones accepted an invitation from Warner to join him for a pickup game of basketball at the Medical College of Virginia gymnasium a few blocks from the Capitol.

&uot;They played hard, for an hour and a half, and then talked about the possible compromises,&uot; Shear wrote. &uot;That weekend, Jones started making some rough spreadsheets that contained many of the elements written on the napkin. He did not include a half-cent increase in the sales tax but did have some tax-relief elements that Warner was pushing.

Del. L. Preston Bryant Jr. (R-Lynchburg) was doing the same thing. Shear wrote that Bryant and Jones, whose offices are next to each other, began talking about their frustrations. The next Thursday, about 11 p.m. Bryant sent an e-mail to Jones that included the outlines of a plan. The two honed the plan in e-mail exchanges.

Shear writes that Bryant then met with Howell and other senior House Republicans and told him that 15 to 20 members of the caucus were ready to support a plan that included a sales tax increase. Howell insisted he was wrong, but nonetheless allowed the measure to go to the floor for a vote.

Shear said Jones and Bryant continued to hone their plan and shared it with other House Republicans, senators and members of Warner’s staff.

The House approved the Jones-Bryant plan on April 13, 52-46. Seventeen Republicans supported it.

Jones, who has come under some criticism from the ant-tax wing of the Republican party for his role in reaching the compromise budget, aid Monday that he had spent the weekend relaxing at home and trying to put the session out of his mind for awhile, confirmed Shear’s account of events as it pertains to him.

In addition, he noted that the budget passed went along way toward fulfilling the state’s obligations, particularly for K-12 and higher education, and health and human resources.

&uot;I thought the conferees did a good job in crafting a compromise between what the house wanted and what the Senate wanted,&uot; he said. &uot;We put more money into the rainy day fund which will help the state’s bond rating, we lessened borrowing and we did more with cash than anticipated, which is a good thing.&uot;