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Virginia voters will decide 3 ballot initiatives on taxes, budget

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 11:02 PM

RICHMOND - Virginia voters will face three ballot initiatives Tuesday that would amend the state's constitution and affect tax and budget policy.

None of the three questions has been especially controversial, but elections officials are urging voters to familiarize themselves with the issues ahead of time to speed the voting process and avoid lines at the polls.

The most notable of the initiatives is Ballot Question No. 2, which would exempt military veterans with 100 percent service-related disabilities from paying property taxes on their residences. A spouse would receive the benefit after a veteran's death, as long as he or she remained in the home.

The Virginia Department of Veterans Services has said there were 7,358 veterans living in the state as of May 2009 who would qualify for the benefit, but no estimate of the total cost to local jurisdictions, which collect property taxes, is available. Only disabled veterans who own homes could take advantage of the exemption.

Proposed constitutional changes in Virginia must be approved twice by the General Assembly, with an election between the legislature's two votes. Amendments must then pass muster with voters in a ballot initiative.

State Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the benefit in the legislature, said she proposed it after learning that many other states have long offered property tax relief for disabled veterans.

Puller noted that years ago, she and her late husband - a decorated Marine veteran who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about recovering from severe wounds he received in Vietnam - thought about settling in Maryland instead of Virginia because the state offered property tax relief for disabled veterans.

"The benefit is nice," she said. "But what it really does is send a very good message about how we value veterans."

Roger Sullivan, who lives in Henrico County, urged lawmakers to put the amendment to voters for the same reason. Sullivan said he was disabled during his Army service in Vietnam. ("I was shot three times," he said. "The first two didn't hurt so bad. The third one did.")

He said he believes the benefit would save him about $140 a month. But more important, he said, he would feel honored by state residents if the measure were approved. "It would show that the people of Virginia appreciate their veterans," he said.

Mild opposition to the constitutional change has come from the _blankVirginia Association of Counties, which in general opposes efforts by the legislature to adjust local tax revenue. Property tax rates in Virginia are set by boards of supervisors, and the revenue funds local services.

"It's not that we're against disabled veterans, by any stretch of the imagination," said the association's executive director, James Campbell. "But there are principles we try to stand for. A local tax is a local tax, and we don't think the state ought to be giving it away."

Virginia's counties are more enthusiastic about Ballot Question No. 1, which would give localities the ability to craft programs to offer property tax relief to elderly and disabled residents.

Under Virginia's governing structure, local governments have only those powers that are specifically designated to them by the state. Under current law, counties have appealed one by one to the legislature for permission to adopt tax-relief programs, which typically impose income restrictions. If the amendment were approved, any county could adopt its own tax-relief program and set its own rules.

Ballot Question No. 3 would affect the amount of money the legislature can set aside in the state's rainy day fund, also called the Revenue Stabilization Fund, when the economy is good.

Currently, the General Assembly is constitutionally forbidden to set aside more than 10 percent of the state's average annual sales tax and income tax revenue from the preceding three budget years. If the constitution is amended, that figure would rise to 15 percent of average tax revenue.

The cap is designed to ensure that the legislature doesn't tax citizens for the purpose of hoarding money. But Del. John M. O'Bannon III (R-Henrico), who proposed the change, said inflation has degraded the rainy day fund since it was conceived in 1991.

Virginia has tapped the fund in recent years to cushion the blow of declining tax revenues.

"The recent recession has brought to the forefront the value of savings," O'Bannon said.

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