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Tax Reform Top Item

General Assembly convenes; city charter changes eyed by local delegation.

The Virginia General Assembly was gaveled into session Wednesday and the issue on the minds of the members and of Virginia citizens is tax reform.

Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) unveiled his tax reform package in December as part of his budget presentation and Republican Senator John H. Chichester (R-28) unveiled his own plan earlier this week. It went even further than did Warner’s.

“What is most gratifying about Sen. Chichester’s plan is that it shows that there has been a clear change in the tone of the conversation here,” said Sen. Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer (D-30). “Last year nobody wanted to even discuss tax reform. Now, it’s not a matter of whether we are going to increase the gasoline tax, it’s by how much. It’s not a matter of whether we’re going to increase the cigarette tax but by how much.

"Finally, everyone has recognized that we must do something to increase our revenues because even if we don’t have one new cent of expenditures and just maintain our current level of spending, we are going to be operating at a deficit until 2010. I am pleased that everyone is beginning to take that seriously.”

Both tax reform proposals would increase Virginia’s sales tax by one cent. “This will certainly provide the most revenue,” said Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-45) in an interview before the session opened.

Both plans call for an increase in the gasoline and cigarette tax. Chichester’s proposal would increase the state tax on cigarettes to 35 cents and would cap the combined state and local tax on cigarettes at 90 cents.

“We will simply have to discuss both proposals and work toward a compromise,” Ticer said. “The fact that the senator has his own ideas indicates that there is a basis for a dialogue.”

Alexandria’s own legislative package includes several measures that citizens should watch.

“We have four measures that require a change to the city’s charter,” said Bernard Caton, the director of legislative affairs for the city. “One is a zoning change that would simply give us the same authority that many other jurisdictions have.”

The most controversial of the charter changes would give the city authority to provide grants to public safety, public school and other city employees for housing. The City Council and the local legislative delegation heard testimony against this proposal.

“The charter change doesn’t mean that the city would definitely initiate such a program but it would give them the authority to look at the issue and make a decision at some later time,” Caton said.

ANOTHER CHARTER change would give the city’s Human Rights Commission the right to enforcement. “This would allow civil action to be taken against employers who are found to be in violation of human rights laws,” Caton said.

The city is also asking for the right to use the special use permit process to require developers to make payments into an affordable housing trust fund in return for higher density.

“This goes much further than the steps we currently take in requiring developers to make provisions for affordable housing,” Caton said. “All of these measures could face opposition.”

The Courts and Justice Committee will interview candidates for two judicial vacancies in the city — one for the Circuit Court position that was held by Judge Alfred Swersky, who retired in July, and one for the vacancy that has been created by the retirement of Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Stephen W. Rideout, who will retire in August.

The local legislative delegation has nominated Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Nolan B. Dawkins for the Circuit Court vacancy while Republican members of the House and Senate have nominated Tim Battle, a Fairfax County attorney.

“We intend to put Judge Dawkins’ name forward for consideration and we’ll see what happens at the hearings,” said Delegate Brian Moran (D-46), the chair of the Democratic Caucus and a member of the Courts and Justice Committee.

As to the Juvenile and Domestic Relations vacancy, the Alexandria Bar Association is supporting local attorney, Barbara Beech for the position. There were 10 applicants.

“In the past, we have interviewed all of the applicants, not just the candidate who is recommended by the Bar Association,” Ticer said. “I would expect that we might do that in this case as well.”

Caton will provide weekly reports on the status of legislation of importance to Alexandria to members of City Council’s Legislative Committee. These briefings are held in the Council work room at 5 p.m. every Friday. The public is welcome to attend, but should call the City Clerk’s office to confirm that the meetings will occur. That number is 703-838-4500.