With a month before the real action begins in Richmond, Arlington’s elected officials are starting to look at what tax reform might mean for county taxpayers.
It could mean the difference between paying high and low property taxes, high and low income taxes, an extra 75 cents on a pack of cigarettes and an extra 50 cents on a gallon of gas.
Last month, County Board officials unanimously approved their package of requests for Arlington’s General Assembly delegation, and School Board members are set to approve their own wish list for Arlington legislators on Thursday, Dec. 6. County Board members met with members of Arlington’s Assembly delegation on Monday afternoon to discuss their hopes for the Assembly session beginning in January.
Between the two lists there are several elements in common, including a request to let Arlington increase its own cigarette tax, and to press the state to update and fund fully state Standards of Quality for schools.
Last year, Arlington’s officials made similar requests only to see most of them die a slow death in a tight budget year. This year, however, legislators have more hope. Leading into the November election, state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31), the senate’s minority whip, expressed some optimism that members of the General Assembly would be more receptive to tax reform when they come to Richmond in January.
With Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) unveiling of his proposed tax reform package last week, Whipple said she was even more optimistic that real changes in the state tax structure are coming down the pike.
“I feel better about it,” she said. “The governor’s approach was reasonable. It’s very conservative. It doesn’t raise too many hackles.”
<b>ON ARLINGTON’S OWN</b> wish lists, some tax reform requests found their way onto the governor’s proposals, while others were left off.
First on the County Board’s legislative list were requests:
• not to cut into the county’s ability to levy local taxes, and;
• not to impose caps on real estate tax revenues, which could come into play in Arlington, where rising assessments meant that, even as real estate tax rates went down, the average real estate payment went up almost 45 percent over over five years.
In addition, the county asked legislators to consider:
• authorizing more flexibility for tax relief at the local level, and;
• to give counties the same authority to raise taxes as cities – a carryover from last year’s legislative package, and a move that would let Arlington raise cigarette and gas taxes to match rates in Alexandria and Falls Church.
While that item was left over from last year, County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D) reminded legislators that the legislative package is not a list of perennial requests. “A few years ago we went back and we revamped it,” he said. “This really is a list of our priorities.”
<b>SOME COUNTY PRIORITIES</b> dovetail with requests from the School Board, and with Warner’s tax proposals. Looking at the state’s tax structure, the schools asked that the state increase the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents per pack to 50 cent per pack – while Warner proposes an increase to 25 cents per pack, and authority for counties to raise that tax another 50 cents on their own.
Meanwhile the schools are also asking the Assembly to support the full funding for revisions and reassessment of state Standards of Quality, standards for teacher-student ratios and additional teachers that are the basis for state education funding.
Full funding for SOQs also gained support from the county. “This all stems from the recognition that responsible governing means providing sufficient resources, and at the local level the big concern is funding education,” said Del. Robert Brink (D-48).
But much of that funding comes from the local level, not the state, and that played into county opposition of property tax caps, said County Manager Ron Carlee.
“Caps would devastate local revenue, and that would dramatically effect education,” he said. “That’s where local property taxes go.”
That’s why County Board members sought more flexibility in applying state tax relief at the local level, he said. The county is looking for ways to offer relief based on taxpayers’ ability to pay their bills, where growth is going on in the county and exemptions for some portion of all home values.
<b>BOTH COUNTY AND</b> school legislative wish lists were written before the release of Warner’s tax restructuring proposals, and the different elements may appear in different proposals and counter-proposals as the Assembly session rages on, said Whipple.
That meant that some of the county’s wishes will be probably be granted, she said, because there’s a strong likelihood that tax restructuring will meet success in the Assembly. For proof, she pointed to the results of the campaign for the Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chair last month.
Voters elected Democrat Gerry Connolly over Republican Mychele Brickner, who supported tax caps – a sign, Whipple said, that there was public support for continuing government services rather than easy tax cuts.
“We’re at the end of those easy tax cuts,” she said. “And they weren’t that easy.”
But Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45) was not as sunny about the possibilities of tax reform during this Assembly session. It’s possible that Warner’s proposal, and counter-proposals by Assembly members, could get held up in committees, she said.
“These will be dealt with relatively easily in the Senate,” said Van Landingham. “In the House, we will have to wait and see what the Finance Committee will do. It could be brinksmanship that will decide whether anything will get passed.”