RICHMOND -- Away from the spotlight and far from the attention of most voters, two quiet campaigns supported by senior citizens advocates and law enforcers are underway to change the Virginia Constitution.
One of four proposed amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot asks voters whether local governments should have the authority to grant relief to needy senior citizens or disabled persons who owe personal property tax, which is paid on cars and other tangible assets.
Another would allow assets seized from drug dealers to be turned over to local police departments, with the profits going to finance further efforts against illegal narcotics.
Neither amendment has attracted organized opposition, and supporters expect both measures to pass easily.
That stands in contrast to the other two statewide referendums on this fall's ballot, both of which concern debt financing for transportation projects and have generated widespread debate.
The drug asset forfeiture amendment's prospects are helped by the support of two high-profile patrons: Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.
As Virginia law now stands, when local police departments confiscate assets from drug merchants, the profits are turned over to the state Literary Fund, whose $67 million endowment goes to finance school construction.
The problem is, most law officers would rather have the money go back to their local crime-fighting agencies. So instead of participating in the state's program, local police usually participate in a federal asset forfeiture program that allows their departments to keep 85 percent of the profits.
If the amendment passes, the state's asset-forfeiture program would mirror the federal government's. Proponents argue that the benefit to local law enforcers far outweighs the minimal loss -- less than $150,000 -- to the literary fund. Even education groups, such as the Virginia Education Association, agree with the reasoning and are supporting the amendment.
"The literary fund is very stable and well-funded," said Robert Northern, Wilder's director of drug policy. "Law enforcement is struggling for all the money it can get. They are really counting on the money coming back to them to finance new drug investigations."
If passed, the personal property tax amendment would be the culmination of a six-year effort by state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) that began when the legislator took a call from an irate senior citizen.
"He was really upset -- mad at me and the world," Colgan recalled.
The constituent complained that he couldn't drive his pickup truck because he couldn't pay the taxes. Colgan thought that local governments should have the option to offer lower rates to some people, similar to the relief some localities now offer on the real estate tax paid on homes. After consulting with then-Prince William County Attorney John Foote, Colgan concluded that reforming local tax practices would require changing the constitution.
Colgan at first had trouble getting his colleagues to go along. For years, the Senate Finance Committee killed Colgan's proposal by 8 to 7 votes. The panel finally acquiesced two years ago, clearing the way for this fall's vote.
If the amendment passes, Colgan said he will sponsor legislation during this winter's General Assembly session that would spell out the specifics of tax relief, such as what income levels would be eligible.
Colgan said the personal property tax relief program likely would be identical to the one for real estate, which applies to people earning less than $42,000 a year.