For months J. W. Talbott, a General Electric Co. executive in Lynchburg, Va., has been attempting to drum up support for an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would limit the State's taxing powers.
Only a few officeholders seemed to be taking his proposal seriously until California voters two weeks ago approved Proposition 13, a measure that will limit sharply property taxes in that state.
Since then Talbott and his Fair Taxes for Virginians group have found that politicans across the state have developed a strong interest in the proposal. Last week Gov. John N. Dalton and his top financial advisers met with Talbott and on Thursday 60 legislators and business leaders gathered in Charlottesville to hear Talbott.
One state legislator promised last week to introduce the amendment at the next General Assembly session and Dalton, who has stoutly resisted proposals for higher state taxes, hailed Talbott's concept as "an interesting proposal."
Whether or not the amendment will become law, the interest that Talbott is finding among Virginia legislators indicates that taxes are certain to be a major issue before the legislature in a year in which all 140 assembly seats will be up for election.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure on us to limit both state taxes and local government taxes," said State Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) in an interview last week. The pressure that Proposition 13 has brought to Virginia is not "going to go away," Brault said.
At the moment few people seem as surprised at the sudden response to the Talbott, as proposal Talbott, who drafted it as a member of a Lynchburg Chamber of Commerce that began studying Virginia taxes a year ago. His amendment would limit tax state's tax take to no more than the current level, or 6.5 percent of personal income.
Virginia state government, Talbott is quick to say, "has done a pretty good job of controlling costs." The state's current burden is "about what it should be," he said in an interview.
Despite the attention the California action has given Talbott, he said he fears that Proposition 13 is too drastic for Virginia."It certainly brought our proposal to the surface of public awareness, but I regard Proposition 13 as the type of extreme reaction you will get from voters if the people in charge do not do the responsible things," he said.
Brault said he will take a "cautious" approach to a constitutional limit on tax authority. "A lot is going to depend on how the California experience works out," he said. "California is an extreme case."
Del. Gerald L. Baliles (D-Richmond), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, also said the assembly approach may be cautious. "I wouldn't want to make any predictions now," he said, "but I would point out that Virginia has taken a very studied approach to all the other bandwagons that have come along in recent years -- no fault insurance, zero-based budgeting and sunset laws."
The chairmen of the Democratic caucuses of the overwhelming Democratic assembly promised new budget restraint at a press conference last week, but make no specific proposals.
"We know where to apply the knife, and we not only intend to apply the knife but to apply the meat cleaver," Del. C. Hardaway Marks of Hopewell, chairman of the House caucus, said.
However, Sen. Willard J. Moody of Portsmouth, Senate Democratic caucus chairman, said the assembly might actually consider increasing the statewide sales tax from 4 cents to 5 cents in order to give more aid to cities and countries and enable them to lower unpopular property taxes.
Moody and Marks blamed the last three Republican governors for increases in state spending, a complaint that Dalton found incredible. "I couldn't believe it when I saw it in the paper," the governor said. "They all voted for the budget. I'm not here to say it is a partisan matter, but I don't think the Republican Party place, especially in light of the fact should be blamed for what has taken that Democrats have controlled the assembly during the last decade."
"Virginia ranks about 35th among the states now in state taxes per $1,000 of personal income," Talbott said. "We think that's about right. We don't want to be at the bottom."
Virginia rose from the near the bottom in tax burden imposed on residents after 1966, when the assembly adopted the sales tax. That was the last major tax rate increase by the state goverment.
Under the Fair Taxes proposal, state taxes could continue to rise, but no faster than the growth of personal income. The proposed amendment would permit the ceiling to be broken only by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the assembly.
As drafted, the Tablott amendment places on restrictions on city and county taxes, including the real estate tax. Moreover, it would guarantee continuation of the present share of the state budget that goes to cities and counties, about 56 percent, and force the state to finance any new service requirements imposed by the assembly on local government.
Adoption of a constitutional amendment requires approval by both houses of the legislation in two sessions separated by an election of the House of Delegates.The amendment must then be approved by voters. An amendment first approved by the assembly next year could become law in 1981.