Virginians will pay a bit less for their groceries starting Friday, thanks to the state government's decision to speed up a reduction in the food tax.
The tax on food bought at grocery stores drops from 4 cents per dollar to 2.5 cents.
The tax reduction was scheduled to be phased in over three years, but Virginia's improving economy was bringing in so much revenue that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and the General Assembly decided over the winter to speed things up.
The food tax is about as popular as the car tax in Virginia, and the idea of cutting it has been debated on and off for nearly 40 years.
"I introduced a food tax bill in 1968," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who sponsored the House version of the bill this year. "I guess persistence is the better part of valor."
Expenses for cigarette smokers are going in the opposite direction. Virginia's tax on cigarettes rises Friday from 20 cents a pack to 30 cents, the second part of a two-step increase that began last year. As part of the state's 2004 tax and budget plan, lawmakers first increased the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents to 20 cents. That change took effect in September.
Several other laws passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor will take effect, including measures to allow midwives who are not nurses to practice in the commonwealth and to toughen penalties for underage drinking.
The accelerated cut in the food tax will cost the state nearly $100 million in the fiscal year that starts Friday. Food prepared in restaurants will continue to be taxed at 5 percent.
The $98.5 million in additional revenue projected from the cigarette tax increase will be used for health care for children from low-income families, for the elderly and for the disabled.
"We worked hard last year to get our fiscal house in order, and Virginians continue to see the benefits both in tax reductions and through significant new investments in our shared priorities, such as public schools and the environment," Warner said in a statement.
As the new laws come into effect, an old one will expire. Beginning Friday, localities will not be able to use red-light cameras to generate traffic tickets. The law that allowed them was not renewed.
The new law regarding midwives is intended to better regulate home births. It will allow the Virginia Board of Medicine to license midwives, who will then be able to supervise births at home. The midwives, who are in a category called "certified professional midwives," will be required to meet competency standards.
In addition, several changes to the state criminal code are taking effect, including measures designed to curb underage drinking.
Under one law, possession or consumption of alcohol by anyone younger than 21 will carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail. Also, adults found guilty of purchasing or providing alcohol for someone younger than 21 -- except children or guests in their homes in some instances -- will face a maximum penalty of a year in jail and possible suspension of their driver's license.
"The two new laws address both supply and demand when it comes to underage drinking in Virginia," said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.
Other criminal code changes include enhanced penalties for computer crimes, such as "phishing" and "spoofing" -- techniques that use e-mails to trick recipients into providing financial information. Those convicted of a felony could serve up to five years in prison and pay $2,500 in fines.
Also, new laws will tighten the penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine, including a three-year mandatory minimum imprisonment for a third offense. It will also be a crime to produce the drug when someone under 18 is present.
And lawmakers saw fit this year to designate the Virginia big-eared bat as the official state bat.