On Jan. 4, the Fairfax delegation to the Virginia General Assembly heard from nearly 100 citizens about the state budget. The speakers didn't talk dollars. They spoke about retarded children, disabled spouses and addicted family members -- all affected by the state's paltry funding of public health and the latest budget cuts, which have eliminated $2 billion in spending and caused 2,000 state layoffs since last July.

What is the assembly's apparent answer to the needs of the vulnerable during a time of hardship? A repeal of Virginia's estate tax.

It would be laughable if it weren't true. Virginia's death tax applies to those residents who have more than $1 million in assets, or $2 million in the case of married couples or widowers. It has been in place for many years. About 1 percent of residents are liable for the tax upon death.

By virtue of the tax, Virginia collects about $150 million a year in general fund revenue. It is true that the federal government is temporarily shelving the estate tax, which will reappear in 2011 under the current law. And because Virginia's rate of 16 percent is tied to federal law, it's also true that Virginia's estate tax, if not reenacted, may be phased out during that time.

But that is no reason to accelerate the process during a budget crisis. There is also no reason why working Virginians should pay taxes on income while the descendants of millionaires pay no taxes on their inheritances.

Repealing the death tax now, while thousands of Virginians are losing government assistance, is not just poor public policy -- it lacks humanity.

J. CHAPMAN PETERSEN

Delegate (D-Fairfax)

Virginia House of Delegates

Richmond