Prospects Appear Bright for Tax Exemption for Va. Homeowners

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

A big tax break might be on the way for Virginia homeowners as the legislature edges closer to passing a constitutional amendment that would permit a homestead property tax exemption.

Under the bill, submitted by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), local governments would be allowed to give homeowners as much as a 20 percent rebate on their real estate assessments, which could mean savings of hundreds of dollars a year.

Whipple has championed the concept for years as a way to give voters some relief from double-digit increases in their property taxes, and now the measure appears to have a good chance of approval.

The homestead exemption also was promoted by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) during his 2005 campaign. It requires a change to the state constitution, which means the legislature must approve it twice before it goes to voters, who are unlikely to turn down a tax break.

Lawmakers easily approved it last year, and if they do again, Virginians will vote on the proposed change in the Nov. 4 election. The legislative session begins Wednesday.

"I believe what's important is fairness in the tax system," said Whipple, who said it would allow the tax burden to be shifted from homeowners, who have been carrying a heavier load, to commercial property owners.

During the recent real estate boom, residential assessments soared while commercial assessments rose less dramatically, shifting some of the burden from commercial property owners. State law required residential and commercial assessments to be set at the same level, so local governments responded by cutting the tax rate. Whipple said the homestead exemption would allow local governments to give homeowners a break in years when assessments skyrocket.

Many homeowners are licking their lips in anticipation.

"The assessments have risen so steeply," said Hans Bauman, an Arlington County resident who said his taxes have more than doubled in the past five years as real estate values rose, and now cost him an extra $325 a month. "It's welcome news to hear there may be some relief coming."

With a 20 percent exemption, Bauman would save more than $1,400 a year on his home, which is assessed at $862,000.

Wayne Kubicki, a Republican activist in Arlington, said he hopes the legislature will pass it.

"It's something the board should be able to do" to help residents deal in the future with rapidly rising assessments, he said.

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