Few Virginia shoppers interviewed yesterday were aware of tax increases that went into effect yesterday, and even fewer believed that the money would go where the politicians promised it would go: to education.
The state's General Assembly approved a $1.3 billion tax increase this year that included a half-cent increase in the general sales tax, a large increase in cigarette taxes and a smorgasbord of other fees and charges. The changes went into effect yesterday.
"I picked today of all days to go shopping," said Tom Sparkman, 27, who found out about the higher sales tax after spending $100 on a boombox and batteries at Target in Alexandria.
Although most shoppers said the sales tax increase wasn't enough to get hot about by itself, many lumped it with a host of other increases in the cost of daily life, such as higher gasoline prices and property taxes.
Elizabeth McDonald, 35, who recently moved from Tyler, Tex., said the cost of living in the Washington region is hard enough on her wallet. "Given the fact that I just paid my car taxes for the year, this is not good news," she said. "But what are you going to do?"
Whether the state should raise taxes to solve its fiscal problems was the subject of much political hand-wringing and arm-twisting this year and sent the legislative session into overtime.
In the end, the sales tax was increased from 4.5 percent to 5 percent, and the cigarette tax was increased from 2.5 cents a pack to 20 cents this year and will rise to 30 cents in 2005.
The tax for recording a deed rose from 15 cents to 25 cents per $100 in value.
Taxes on some incomes and on groceries will be cut, some corporate tax breaks will end and the state will cap the amount it spends on car tax relief starting in 2006.
There were no news conferences scheduled yesterday by state leaders to herald the tax increases. But the package probably will become a centerpiece of next year's races for governor and the state legislature.
The debate has riven state Republicans, who control both chambers of the General Assembly. And some lawmakers are calling for additional revenue to help unclog the state's highways and bolster mass transit.
But for Debbie Cropper, the outcome is simple: Things will cost more. "It's hard. My husband has to work harder to get what we need," said Cropper, 32, of Triangle, who had four of her five children with her at Potomac Mills mall yesterday. "It's expensive when you've got to buy for five."
Others said Virginia taxes are still relatively low compared with other states. What they are waiting for is the services that the extra money will pay for.
Rob Lewandowski of South Riding said he didn't give the tax increase a thought when he purchased a DVD and tennis balls at a Super Target yesterday.
"If it's for education, I don't mind paying an extra half-cent per dollar," said Lewandowski, 36, a financial consultant with three children younger than 9.
Few shoppers expressed confidence that the extra revenue would go where legislators said it would.
"We don't really know where our money is going," said Lauren Vernon, 45, of Centreville. "If it is going toward education, why is it the first place they cut?"
Mia Crenshaw, 38, said she saw paying the higher tax as an investment in future generations. "It's for our benefit. I'm hoping to get something in return," said the Leesburg homemaker, who hadn't noticed the increase when she bought Christmas ornaments, wrapping paper and holiday cards at a Costco yesterday. "Our economy is still strong," she said.
Smokers, a favorite target of revenue-hungry legislators across the country, took it on the chin yesterday, when the Virginia tax on a pack of smokes went up 171/2 cents. Some were resigned to paying more; others were combative.
"I love to smoke," said Aidan Harrington, 18, of Manassas, who bought a carton of Camel Turkish Gold. "I smoke for me, not the politicians."
The higher tax amounts to discrimination against smokers, said Danny Compton, 51, who was outside the Best Smokes Tobacco Outlet in Fairfax County. He walked out of the store with three packs of Merit Lights, a two-day supply, which had gone up from $3.50 a pack to nearly $3.70, a change he hadn't expected.
"They already cost too much," said Compton, a lineman with Dominion Virginia Power. "If I want to smoke myself to death, let me. Don't tax me more."
Tax increases have prompted the owner of Triangle Cigarettes Discount Store to take the "discount" out of its name. Before the state cigarette tax increase, owner Abraham D. Nam had to deal with a Manassas city cigarette tax increase in July. In June, a pack of Marlboro Lights was $2.78. After he sells off his current stock, the price will be $3.14 a pack.
"I've lost a lot of customers; my business has gone down, down, down,'' he said.
Nam has changed the name of his store to Triangle Convenience Store and hopes to sell more shirts, hats and other items.
The sales tax changes seem to have gone smoothly among retailers.
Local government employees worked overtime to make sure the increase in the real estate recording tax caused a minimum of confusion.
Gary M. Clemens, clerk of the Circuit Court in Loudoun County, and much of his staff stayed until 9 p.m. Tuesday to process recordings received before the increase went into effect. "We knew it would result in a major headache to send them all back," Clemens said. The line at the courthouse was still long at the usual closing time of 4 p.m.
Clemens said he and his staff have been preparing for the increase since July 1. Despite the preparation, the first day of the tax still proved hectic, because many real estate transactions take place at the end and beginning of the month.
Clemens said his office had to reject several transactions that arrived by mail yesterday because the tax payments were calculated under the old rates and were insufficient.
Land records clerks in Arlington County and Alexandria said they had prepared for the higher real estate taxes by updating their computer systems and posting notices.
Both offices said they were able to process all recordings received Tuesday by the end of the day.
Staff writer Lila Arzua contributed to this report.