GATE CITY - Republican Jerry Kilgore returned to the gymnasium of his far Southwest Virginia high school to formally start his campaign for governor Monday night, outlining an "honest reform" agenda that would let voters decide on future increases in general taxes and capping growth in real estate assessments.
"Let's get back to the basics," Kilgore said in a speech to an overflow crowd of supporters at Gate City High School. "Our Virginia constitution recognizes that power is vested in, and thus derived from, the people. ... I trust the people."
Kilgore, a former attorney general, said he would give taxpayers "the right to vote on any increase in the sales tax, gas or income taxes" unless an emergency demands immediate action from the General Assembly. Kilgore joined calls for a referendum last year before lawmakers passed a package of tax increases worth $1.4 billion in the current budget cycle.
Kilgore's proposal was part of a series of initiatives he will detail in the early stages of his campaign, dubbed "Ten Weeks of Honest Reform." Among other things, the agenda will include proposals to create regional transportation authorities, establish an investment fund for school construction and provide merit-based pay increases to teachers. Kilgore also called for a $500-per-child tax credit to help parents pay for computers or other education supplies.
Kilgore will advocate a constitutional amendment to limit annual increases in local real estate assessments on homeowners, addressing an issue that could define the general election contest with Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the likely Democratic nominee. Kaine last week said he would seek a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to exempt up to 20 percent of the real estate tax levied on owner-occupied homes and farms.
Kilgore's plan would cap growth in real estate assessments at 5 percent per year, limiting the ability of local governments to generate revenue without adjusting their tax rates. Kilgore said local governments "need to be honest with the citizens and not levy back-door tax increases by sharply increasing tax assessments."
"My plan is an honest plan that attacks the real problem - skyrocketing property tax assessments which do result in bigger real estate taxes paid by you," Kilgore said. "My opponent offers a dishonest plan that fails to address the problem. Under my plan, tax relief is not an option left to local officials, it is my promise from me to you."
Kaine's campaign alleged that Kilgore's plan would artificially cap home values and jeopardize funding for public schools. Kaine's plan for real estate tax relief requires the state to fully fund its share of public school costs to reduce localities' dependence on real estate tax revenue.
Both candidates' plans would require constitutional amendments, which must be passed in consecutive legislative sessions separated by an election, then approved by voters in a referendum. The earliest that such a referendum could occur would be in November 2008.
Kilgore, 43, kicked off his campaign at the high school from which he graduated in 1979, surrounded by his wife and two children and the state's most popular Republican officeholders, Sens. John Warner and George Allen. Warner and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, will join Kilgore this morning when the campaign begins a daylong, statewide tour with an 8:30 a.m. rally at the Wyndham Roanoke Hotel on Hershberger Road. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore also is scheduled to campaign with Kilgore today in Northern Virginia, Virginia Beach and Richmond.
After his 1993 election as governor, Allen plucked Kilgore from relative obscurity and appointed him secretary of public safety. Allen told the Gate City crowd that Kilgore "is like a cousin to me" and called the candidate a "key leader" in his administration's effort to abolish parole.
The presence of such prominent Republicans demonstrates the strength of Kilgore's support within the party, despite a nomination challenge from little-known Warrenton mayor George Fitch and an independent candidacy mounted by Russ Potts, a Republican state senator from Winchester. Kilgore can't claim the GOP nomination before the party's June 14 primary, but he has spent months aiming rhetorical fire at Kaine as if the nomination were a forgone conclusion.
Kaine formally launched his campaign last week, casting himself as the logical successor to Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and promoting his plan for real estate tax relief. In a statement released Monday, Kaine said the election will provide voters with a clear contrast.
Kilgore's Republican roots run deep in Gate City. His identical twin brother, Terry, has served in the House of Delegates for a dozen years. His father, John, is a longtime chairman of the Scott County Republican committee. His mother, Willie Mae, is Scott County's voter registrar.
As Kilgore spoke, a supporter waved a large, handmade sign that said: "Pardon my accent while I tell you I'm voting for Jerry Kilgore." The candidate, proud of his rural roots, said his deep mountain twang will be an asset as he seeks the support of Virginia voters.
"I may not always speak as quickly as a trial lawyer," Kilgore said. "But I tell you this: I would rather be a workhorse than a show horse."
Home: Henrico County Occupation: Lawyer
Elected office: Virginia Attorney General, 2002-05
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Virginia's College at Wise; law degree, College of William Mary