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Votes

Wrangling Richmond for Revenue

Local, cigarette taxes top county legislative agenda.

Financial battles loom on the horizon in Richmond, battles that are reflected in the County Board’s 2003 package for Arlington’s state representatives.

With Virginia still struggling to find ways around a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, the most board’s legislative agenda focuses largely on local finances and taxes. “The most important things are budget-related,” said County Manager Ron Carlee, following a meeting Monday, Dec. 9, between County Board members and state senators and delegates from Arlington.

The board adopted its 2003 Legislative Package at its Dec. 7 meeting but met with legislators Monday to discuss strategy before finalizing the package Tuesday.

As top priorities, the county proposed legislation that give back to Arlington more tax revenues raised in Arlington; let the county raise the local tax on cigarettes, and otherwise increase Arlington County’s taxing authority. In Virginia, cities have more ability to levy taxes within their borders, but counties do not.

Arlington is seeking increased control over local property taxes and increased shares of income taxes that Arlington residents pay to the state. Board members spoke passionately about taxation issues at several of their Saturday meetings during the last three months. The county’s top issue is getting the state to pay back more of the local taxes collected in Arlington, then sent to Richmond for distribution around the state.

THAT QUEST COMES, in part, as a response to the decision by Gov. Mark Warner (D) to withhold local taxes collected by the state, like a tax on car rentals.

To help solve state budget problems, Warner directed that those funds be diverted to other projects rather than being reimbursed to the county where they were collected. Local officials estimated that decision would cost Arlington $750,000 next year.

Last month, Board member Barbara Favola called Warner’s new policy “robbery.” Monday, board chair Chris Zimmerman said that although the state had legal authority to withhold local revenues, there is no “moral right” to do so.

CIGARETTE TAX INCREASES have been a subject of debate around the Washington region and across the state, and the Arlington school board also called for increases in the cigarette tax, in the legislative agenda passed Thursday, Nov. 21.

Board members discussed proposals from other jurisdictions, some of which call for cigarette tax increases of 60 cents or more per pack. Arlington’s legislative packet originally called for just a 10-cent increase in the cap on county cigarette taxes. But after discussing the issue Monday, the board decided not to ask for a specific number.

When the school board discussed its agenda, Del. James Almand (D-47) said the shaky economic climate make it more likely than ever that the General Assembly would submit to raising Virginia’s cigarette tax, currently the lowest in the nation at 2.5 cents per pack.

That tax increase could be earmarked for education, or under some proposed legislation drafted by the AARP, for healthcare.

DISCUSSION OF A MORATORIUM on the death penalty returned to the legislative packet this year, at the suggestion of Favola.

Board members supported a moratorium last year, to allow time to investigate the actual guilt of criminals on death row. But the 2003 legislative packet originally contained no reference to the death penalty, and the legislative items adopted by the board on Saturday did not address the issue.

But a moratorium came up again at the Monday meeting with Arlington’s Assembly delegation, when board members requested more information on previous investigations into the death penalty.

At the end of a 21-day moratorium last year, state officials concluded that racial bias did not affect Virginia’s death penalty cases, but that use of the death penalty varied according to local jurisdiction, Almand said.

After further discussion at Monday’s meeting, the board elected to support another death penalty moratorium, as they did last year.

SPEAKERS ON SATURDAY were more interested in English ivy than any of the many tax issues in Arlington’s legislative agenda.

Arlington joins other counties in Virginia in trying to designate English ivy, an evergreen climbing vine native to Europe and Africa, as a noxious weed. County environmental groups say that some local woods are being overtaken by the plant, at the expense of native Virginia plants.

But many residents are unaware of the problems, and continue to plant more ivy. With state legislation designating English ivy as a noxious weed, Arlington and other jurisdictions in the state could restrict sales of the plant, and could let people know about its effects.

Public interest in the issue led board members to up the priority of the issue, asking the Assembly to pass legislation on the agenda. Many jurisdictions in the state have not yet experienced problems with the ivy, and therefore may not be ready to support the legislation.

But Zimmerman said the measure is important not just for environmental reasons, but for financial ones as well; the ivy is killing trees that the state has spent large sums of money to plant and maintain.

LOCAL SUPPORT will be crucial for legislation in this Assembly session, local officials said. Carlee said that tax issues on the legislative agenda could prove controversial.

But other legislation should draw no opposition, he said, like a measure asking the state to tighten laws covering pedestrian safety. Pedestrian safety concerns affect all Northern Virginia jurisdictions, and therefore Arlington should be able to count on support from Fairfax, Alexandria, Prince William and others, said Zimmerman.

“It’s hard to see down sides to those proposals,” he said. With the exception of budget and taxation concerns, the items in the packet are non-partisan and will not cost the state, he said.