By Nicholas Graham
Special to the Rappahannock News
As voters finish up Halloween candy and put away their spooky costumes just days before Nov. 2 — one last “boo!” may await unknowing voters at the ballot box.
In a 2010 midterm election dominated by races for the U.S. House of Representatives in Virginia — including the 7th congressional district that encompasses Rappahannock County — three constitutional amendments will appear on the ballot for consideration by voters. They’ll be just below the list of congressional candidates.
Along with others, the amendments’ authors — state Sens. George Barker (D) and Linda “Toddy” Puller (D) — have been trying to educate voters about the initiatives and what they mean.
The proposed amendments focus on tax and revenue issues. All three were near unanimously adopted by the General Assembly for two consecutive years, as required by the state Constitution. Getting the approval of Virginia’s voters is the final step toward ratification.
The measures come with strong bipartisan support, with two Democrats sponsoring them in the state Senate, and two Republican lawmakers sponsoring them in the House of Delegates.
The first two questions primarily reflect a shift in the decision-making authority from the state to localities.
The first ballot question states: “Shall Section 6 of Article X of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to authorize legislation that will permit localities to establish their own income or financial worth limitations for purposes of granting property tax relief for homeowners not less than 65 years of age or permanently disabled?”
Barker, who sponsored this amendment, says it gives localities “complete flexibility regarding property tax relief for elderly and disabled persons.”
“I have found that many older people, often those in their 80s and 90s, have limited incomes and are not able to enjoy their retirement as they should because of property taxes. Some do not qualify for relief because of assets that they are saving for possible critical needs, such as long-term care. This amendment would give counties and cities the ability to help those older residents,” he added.
The second ballot initiative, sponsored by Puller, poses the question: “Shall the Constitution be amended to require the General Assembly to provide real property tax exemption for the principal residence of a veteran, or his or her surviving spouse, if the veteran has a 100 percent service-connected, permanent, and total disability?”
The amendment would provide an exemption from local property taxes for the primary residence of any veteran who is 100 percent permanently and totally disabled, according to Puller. The veteran’s disability must be service-related. The provision would allow a surviving spouse to continue to claim the exemption as long as the same home remains the primary residence, and the survivor does not remarry.
Said Puller: “There are slightly over 7,000 100-percent-disabled veterans in the commonwealth, according to the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. This has been one of the top initiatives of the Joint Leadership Council of Veterans Service Organizations for several years. Passing this Constitutional amendment could be of assistance to those who served in our military services and who helped protect our freedoms.”
The third and final amendment on the ballot states: “Shall Section 8 of Article X of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to increase the permissible size of the Revenue Stabilization Fund (also known as the “rainy day fund”) from 10 percent to 15 percent of the Commonwealth’s average tax revenues derived from income and retail sales taxes for the preceding three fiscal years?”
Barker, the initiative’s sponsor, said the state’s “rainy day fund” needs to be expanded in the future. The maximum size of the fund is 10 percent of the commonwealth’s average annual tax revenues from income and sales taxes for the preceding three fiscal years. This amendment would increase the maximum allowed amount to 15 percent. Supporters note that this is needed, as the current fund is almost empty and cannot provide targeted fiscal relief to programs that continue to be challenged by the economic downturn.
“When the fund now reaches the 10 percent cap, additional revenues are spent elsewhere rather than a portion being saved in the rainy day fund,” Barker said. “During the recent major recession, Virginia revenues decreased significantly, falling far short of projections. Because the size of the rainy day fund has been modest, it provided only a little help when revenues dropped.”