On the second day of Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine’s eight-day announcement tour through Virginia, the Democratic candidate for governor stopped in Alexandria. On March 17, he toured Chatham Square, the city’s new mix of market rate and public housing. Then he met with supporters at the Royal Restaurant on the north side of Old Town.
"We are off and we are running," said Kaine, who worked as a civil-rights lawyer before entering politics. "We got out of the gate right away."
In a 20-minute speech to Democratic loyalists in the restaurant’s royal room, the candidate enunciated the four main topics he wanted to shape his 2005 campaign around: homeowner taxes, education funding, transportation problems and economic development.
"Local governments face difficult choices," said Kaine. "Some jurisdictions would let their schools suffer rather than doing what they have to do with property taxes."
In a year when property assessments have captured the attention of voters, Kaine is trying to tap into the wellspring of emotion that surrounds rising tax bills. The lieutenant governor is hoping that his experience as the mayor of Richmond will translate into a successful campaign strategy.
Although property taxes are usually considered a local issue, Kaine says that a governor could help provide tax relief by allowing localities to provide a homestead exemption. This is the centerpiece to his effort to campaign on the hot-button issue of property tax relief. To allow localities to enact such an exemption would require an amendment to the Virginia’s constitution because it would create an imbalance between residential property taxes and commercial property taxes, which is currently forbidden. The effect of passing such amendment would place a greater burden would be placed on owners of commercial properties, who would not be eligible for such an exemption.
IF LOCALITIES were given permission to offer a homestead exemption, the Alexandria City Council could offer targeted tax relief to homeowners. For example, the city government could offer tax relief on property taxes to seniors or those who meet the poverty guidelines.
"I think it’s a great idea, and I voted for a homestead exemption in the recent session," said Del. Brain Moran. "I would like to see some tax relief to seniors who are on fixed incomes and have a hard time with these rising property tax bills."
Kaine’s proposal would allow local governments to exempt as much as 20 percent of a home’s value from real estate taxes. Local governments would decide who would get the exemptions and how much they would be, as long as they did not exceed 20 percent. For a $400,000 house, a 20-percent reduction in the residential property tax bill would save a homeowner who qualifies for the exemption $800 a year.
"I think we would try to make it a little more progressive," said City Councilman Rob Krupicka, noting that increasing property tax bill are financially devastating to those who are least able to afford higher bills. "We would probably use it the same way as the senior and disabled tax relief program and the new homeownership program, both of which are designed to create some equity in the tax system."
Councilmember Krupicka and Councilmember Ludwig Gaines attended the Kaine event at the Royal Room, and both reacted positively to the prospect of being able to offer a homestead exemption to residential property taxpayers in Alexandria. Gaines was particularly disappointed that the effort during this year’s General Assembly to create a homestead exemption failed.
"Not only did they miss the ball, they didn’t even show up to the game," said Gaines. "It really speaks to a lack of understanding in Richmond to how the economy works in Northern Virginia."
JERRY KILGORE, former Virginia attorney general, launched his campaign this week as the Republican candidate for governor this week. He was dismissive of the idea of an amendment creating a homestead exemption and proposed two other constitutional amendments. One would cap real estate assessments at no more than 5 percent a year. The other would require public referendums for any tax increase unless a public emergency were declared.
My opponent, he offers a dishonest plan that fails to address the problem," Kilgore said in his campaign kickoff speech. "Under my plan, tax relief is not an option left to local officials, it is my promise from me to you."
At Alexandria’s City Hall, the idea that local officials shouldn’t be given options was met with a chilly reception.
"I think that if you’re going to cap local spending without providing some alternative sources of revenue or getting rid of unfunded mandates, you’re going to end up cutting police, teachers and firefighters," said Krupicka. "It’s effectively a devolution of services."
Krupicka was not alone in opposing Kilgore’s proposed amendments. Councilmember Gaines also expressed reservations about the former attorney general’s plans.
"Kilgore’s plan is another example that demonstrates that they really don’t get it in Richmond," said Gaines. "Tax assessments are what’s available now for dealing with emerging and critical needs. I’d like to see the attorney general propose some alternative sources of revenue."