A little publicized federal study has concluded that rising taxes are putting greater pressure on taxpayers in Virginia than in any other state except financially threatened New York.
The same study, first presented in a paper to a conference of state and local officials last fall, also lists Maryland among the states most threatened by taxes rising faster than the revenue-producing resources of the state. Maryland is ranked sixth among the 50 states in this category.
The figures, complied by the staff of the Advisory Commission for Inter-governmental Relations (ACIR), also show that the tax pressure on residents of the District of Columbia is greater than in Virginia or Maryland. Economists for the agency said in interviews, however, that they do not consider comparisons with the city to be valid because it does not have important fiscal characteristics of the states.
This grim assessment of the fiscal health in Virginia and Maryland comes at a time when the legislatures of both states are looking for ways to cope with projected budget deficits that exceed $100 million.
In both states, some lawmakers have advocated significant increases in either sales or income taxes - the two principal sources of state revenue.
The study, however, apparently will reinforce the opinion of key lawmakers in Virginia at least that the taxpayers' ability to pay new or higher taxes is being stretched too far and that the projected deficit should be wiped out with spending cuts.
Del. Edward E. Lane (D-Richmond), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement today, ". . . unless we choose to emulate New York City, sooner or later - I fear sooner - we will tax the average Virginian to a level that cannot be tolerated."
Neither Lane nor top tax and budget staff officials in the Virginia government have seen the figures compiled by the ACIR. The director of the federal agency is Wayne F. Anderson, former city manager of Alexandria. He recently descirbed the findings in a speech to the League of Women Voters in Alexandria and called them "eye opening."
Anderson said in an interview that the figures showing surprising pressure on taxpayers in Virginia may mean that economic growth in the state has not been as strong in recent years as commonly thought.
Most of the states shown to be in troube by the ACIR measurements are in the Northeast and upper Midwest, areas of conspicuously high unemployment and general economic decline. Most of the states shown to be well off in terms of tax burden are in the "Sun Belt" of the South and Far West, where industry is expanding, unemployment is low and tourism on the rise.
Virginia has enjoyed consistently low jobless rates, held down by heavy government empolyment, but may not, Anderson suggested, be benefiting from the relocation of industry in the Northeast and Midwest to the extent that other Southern states are.
Meanwhile, Virginia government spending has unquestionably raced ahead. For more than 10 years, each biennial budget has risen by 25 per cent to 30 per cent. Even if the current budget is pared to balance reduced revenues, the growth over the last two-year budget will be 24 per cent.
Anderson and economists at the ACIR caution that the complex index that shows both Virginia and Maryland to be under heavy tax pressure is only one method of assessing the fiscal health of a state. By a more traditional gauge that measures state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income, Virginia especially does not appear to be imposing such a heavy burden on its citizens.
By this measure, Virginia still ranks 43d among the 50 states and Maryland 14th.
The ACIR economists, however, say the comparison of taxes to resident personal income for a given year is an inadequate test by itself because it tells nothing about the growth of taxes or the ability of the state to earn revenues from non-income sources such as tourism or mineral wealth.
To obtain a more complete picture of a state's financial health, they have (1) calculated the growth in taxes as a percentage of personal income for 10 year periods and (2) adjusted this figure to reflect the potential of the state to generate revenue from the major sources - income, sales and property.
The calculations have been done by ACIR economists John Shannon and John Ross and by Robert D. Reischauer, formerly of the Brookings Institution and now deputy director of the Congessional Budget Committee staff.
Shannon and Ross have expressed their calculations in a form similar to a blood pressure reading and have called it a "fiscal blood pressure of the states."
In one "blood pressure" reading, they compare the tax burden as a percentage of personal income in a given year with the growth of that burden over a 70-year period.
All the figures are indexed, with 100 representing the median state.
With the 1975 figure stated first and the 10-year trend second, the tax pressure on the Washington-area jurisdiction is: Maryland, 105/245; District of Columbia, 92/213; and Virginia, 91/213. The most distressed state, New York, is 146/297.
These figures mean that Washington, Maryland and Virginia are all reasonably close to the median in current tax burden but are raising taxes at a fast rate compared to other states. By contrast, some mineral-rich states with taxes on their mining operations or states in the South and West enjoying growth is tourism and industry show negative growth rates in tax burden.
When the tax burden and 10-year growth in taxes are restated in terms of potential to pay, Shannon and Ross report Virginia at 102/396; Maryland at 121/347 and Washington at 101/419. Distressed New York is at phenomenal 171/537.
These figures mean that all three Washington-area jurisdictions are taxing themselves more heavily than most other states in terms of their total tax resources and are putting added demands on their resources at an accelerating rate that ecxceeds almost all other states.
Ross said in an interview that Virginia's rapid tax growth is partly explained by the low tax levels that existed 10 years ago before the enactment of a statewide sales tax in 1966 and the escalation of property taxes in Northern Virginia and other areas.
"But this by no means explains away the importance of the growth figure," he said. "It doesn't matter that you started at a low base if the growth is putting heavy pressure on the capacity of residents' resources."