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Transportation, Taxes Focus of Debate

Speaking before the Fairfax County business community Tuesday in McLean, the Democratic and Republican candidates in the race to become Virginia's next governor presented their visions for the commonwealth's future.

In the first of two debates Tuesday at the McLean Hilton, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) agreed that solving the state's transportation problems will be the next governor's top challenge.

"Northern Virginians are spending more time in traffic and less time eating dinner with their families or going to their children's soccer games," said Kilgore, an attorney from Southwestern Virginia.

But the candidates, who will also face Independent candidate Russ Potts on the ballot on Nov. 8, 2005, disagreed over how to end gridlock, particularly in Northern Virginia.

Kilgore said he has a specific transportation plan that he would begin implementing his first day in the governor's mansion. Specifically, he said he would "lock up" the state's transportation trust fund, encourage public-private partnerships for transit projects, widen I-66 inside the Capital Beltway and add another bridge across the Potomac River.

Kilgore said he would create regional transportation authorities that would make decisions about local transit projects.

Kaine, a former mayor of Richmond, said he would work hard to solve Northern Virginia's transportation problems, keeping the state on the course set by Gov. Mark Warner (D).

"Is Virginia better off as a state after four years of the Warner-Kaine administration? Do you want this state to go forward or do you want it to go backward?" Kaine said. "Jerry Kilgore has worked against every reform that Mark Warner and I have worked for."

Together with Warner, Kaine supported the failed 2002 transportation referendum for Northern Virginia, which would have increased the local sales tax to pay for transit projects. Also with Warner, Kaine supported a successful effort earlier this year to increase state transportation spending by $848 million, much of which went to Northern Virginia. Under their leadership, the two Democrats have also made the Virginia Department of Transportation more efficient and accountable, Kaine said.

"I'm a guy who's about results," Kaine said.

THE OTHER TOP ISSUE the two major party candidates discussed was revenue. In 2004, Kaine worked with Warner and moderates in the General Assembly to pass a $1.4 billion tax increase that enhanced state spending for education, public safety and human services. Kaine also supported an effort last spring to cut the state's grocery tax from 3 percent to 1.5 percent.

"We don't need a roll-back at this time," said Kaine, who pointed out that under Warner's administration, the state economy turned around, 300,000 new jobs were added and Virginia was named the best managed state in the nation.

Kaine said he refuses to promise he would never raise taxes, especially if the extra revenue was dedicated toward transportation projects that would reduce gridlock in Northern Virginia.

Kilgore, who worked against the tax increase last year, said he is opposed to any new taxes. In fact, Kilgore said he would eliminate the estate tax and place a 5 percent cap on local property tax increases.

"He's afraid to say to Virginians, 'I raised your taxes,'" Kilgore said. "I'm going to bring real tax relief to Virginia."

Kilgore said the state's current $2.2 billion surplus is evidence that the 2004 tax increase was not needed. If elected, Kilgore said he would allocate the funds to expedite transportation projects. Under Kilgore's plan, new transportation revenue would be approved by voter referendums rather than by the General Assembly.

"I'll be a governor who trusts the people," Kilgore said.

Kaine said Kilgore's idea of leaving transportation funding decisions up to voter referenda displays a lack of leadership and courage.

"We have a system designed by Jefferson and Madison," Kaine said. "They're not lightweights. Jerry, did they not trust the people?"

DURING ONE ESPECIALLY feisty exchange between Kilgore and the debate's moderator, NBC news analyst Tim Russert, the candidate struggled to find an answer to a question about banning abortion in Virginia.

Kilgore, a self-described pro-life candidate, said he "supports a culture of life" and refused to answer questions about what he would do if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade.

Kilgore called the question "a hypothetical," saying, "You don't know what the Supreme Court in the future is going to do."

Russert interrupted him, asking, "If the Virginia legislature passed a tax increase, would you veto or sign it?"

Kilgore said he would veto any tax increases.

"That's a hypothetical question," Russert replied, to the laughter among the audience of Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce members.

Kaine, a Catholic with a religious opposition to abortion and the death penalty, said he would not support further restrictions on abortion.

UNDER THE STATE'S FUNDING formula, revenue from Fairfax County subsidizes the rest of the state, receiving only 20 cents back for every dollar sent to Richmond.

Kaine said he supports investigating reforms of the system, possibly authorizing Fairfax County to raise revenue via taxes other than the property tax.

"There's a strong case to be made that Fairfax ought to have the same taxing powers as cities," Kaine said.

Kilgore said he opposes giving Fairfax County any new ability to raise revenue.

Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) said Kaine is friendlier to Northern Virginia. "He will carry on the excellent job that Mark Warner has done. He'll make an excellent governor," she said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) disagreed. He said Kilgore's plan to immediately kick-start transportation projects Ñ particularly widening I-66 inside the Beltway Ñ make him the better choice for the region.

"They're both good men, but Jerry's more in tune to some of our needs up here in Northern Virginia," Davis said.