local governments

Notice Those Gas Prices?

If you've filled up at the pump recently, you've noticed that it's costing a lot more. In fact, according to AAA, gas prices have risen 31 consecutive days. Unfortunately, if some members of the General Assembly have their way, the impact on your family is only just beginning. As we enter the final week of the 2013 session, the topic of funding transportation dominates. Currently, ten members of the legislature, five from each chamber, are meeting to work out a plan based on legislation introduced on behalf of Governor Bob McDonnell and several other proposals. If they can come to an agreement, the plan they concoct could be voted on very quickly, with little time for legislators or citizens to look at the details.

Some members of both parties want to hike the gas tax, either directly or through "indexing" it to inflation. The governor's proposal would eliminate the gas tax but replace the revenue with an increase in the sales tax. Other elements being discussed include giving local governments the authority to "raise revenue," i.e. raise your taxes, without having to do it through referenda. The price tag on the competing plans comes in somewhere between $800 and $900 million per year in increased funding for transportation, the majority of which comes from increased revenue.

While there is little doubt that transportation is an issue that needs addressing, we urge the General Assembly to keep in mind the devastating effect increased gas prices have had on Virginia's families and small businesses. Increasing that burden even more during a time where some are predicting $5 a gallon gas prices by the end of the year could have a disastrous effect on Virginians. We recognize that there are serious needs in the area of transportation and are hopeful a plan can be agreed to, but it cannot unduly increase the financial burden on our struggling families.

Please contact your Senator (here) and your Delegate (here) and urge them to not increase your taxes in the transportation plan!

Local Governments Never Go Out Of Business Lobbying Against Your Rights And Interests

Anyone who reads this blog with the slightest of regularity knows that a major issue we've tried to bring to voters' attention is the fact that local governments use taxpayers' money to lobby against their interests, rights and liberty at the General Assembly. Whether it's through direct lobbying or through a collective effort via their associations (the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties), and almost always through both by large cities or counties, local governments actively work to empower themselves at their citizens' expense and use their hard-earned tax money to do so. It's as if they consider themselves apart from the citizenry and look out for their own fiefdoms, while the serfs unwittingly fund their own demise. A case in point was exposed in Tuesday's Washington Post concerning how well Fairfax County fared during the recently completed session, as if the county was a citizen seeking relief from government rather than the special interest local governments have become. While much of the article concerned school funding (which might not be such a problem if local governments and school boards supported much needed reforms) there were two telling sections:

County officials lobbied against a measure that would begin the process of amending the state Constitution to prevent the use of eminent domain for economic development. Fairfax officials said they thought the measure went too far.

As if protecting homes, businesses, farms and places of worship is something that can be negotiated. How would local governments like it if their ability to tax was negotiated? Oh, wait:

(Supervisor Jeff McKay, a Democrat) expressed frustration that perhaps the most comprehensive approach to solving the region's transportation woes was barely given a hearing — a bill put forward by (Democrat Delegate Vivian) Watts that would have changed the way that gasoline is taxed and allowed Northern Virginia to impose certain taxes to fund projects in the region.

If it's not taking your property, limiting your choice in education or the right to spend your money in gargantuan proportions, you can be guaranteed it's always about the right to tax you more (and more and more). Poor, poor Supervisor McKay . . . denied the right to suck away more hard-earned money from his constituents, especially gas taxes as gas station light bulbs blow out staying current with daily price increases on the way to $4.00 a gallon. It's estimated now that 15 percent of disposable income is spent on gas and we can expect food prices (and other items) to continue to climb  as transportation costs skyrocket.

But as families look for ways to make ends meet, pay the mortgage, plan for their children's college and other financial responsibilities, and worry if their jobs, farms or businesses will exist in a week, month or year, local governments continue on. They know their future. As long as they have us to foot their bill, they're golden. After all, has a local government ever gone out of business?

Bills Undermining Marriage On Senate Floor This Week!

Tomorrow at noon, the full Senate is scheduled to take up two bills on the floor that would undermine marriage in Virginia and, we believe, may violate Virginia's Marriage Amendment.

Please contact your senator now and urge him or her to vote NO on SB 1121 and SB 1122. To call his or her capitol office, click here. To e-mail him or her, click here.

SB 1121, patroned by Senators Donald McEachin (D-9, Richmond) and Mark Herring (D-33, Leesburg), would permit local governments to extend health and life insurance to "any other person" as agreed to by the insurer and the local government. Included in "any other person" would be domestic partnerships between non-married hetero- and homosexual couples. In essence, this bill creates domestic partner benefits for local government employees.

A second bill, SB 1122, also patroned by Senator McEachin, would allow the state to expand benefits in state government to cover domestic partners. The fiscal impact statement done by the state admits this saying the bill . . .

could create an increase in costs paid by state agencies, state employees, and retired state employees under the state employee health insurance plan. The provisions of this bill may allow coverage to be offered to extended family members and other non-related individuals not currently covered.

The cost to the state (and consequently the taxpayer) to these bills may not be determinable by the state, but we can guarantee that the creation of this new entitlement will be extraordinarily costly for you and your family. At a time when the state can't even pay its full commitment to Virginia Retirement System and is struggling to make ends meet, the Virginia Senate is about to pass legislation that will bury the state in insurance costs.

While the legislation is "permissive," and doesn’t require that benefits be offered, this legislation is obviously the next step in the progression toward domestic partner benefits in Virginia. The long-term consequence of this legislative track goes beyond finances to a threat to religious liberty. Eventually, private employers will be forced to provide these benefits against their will in order to be eligible for government contracts. We have seen this progression elsewhere and many other states are eliminating faith-based providers from contracting with them for this reason.

According to the state constitution:

Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.

Insurance long has been recognized as a benefit of marriage in our Commonwealth. This legislation would create a "class of persons" and assign them a benefit of marriage.

Property Rights Debate Re-Scheduled For Senate Sub-Committee Tuesday Morning!

Last week we wrote a post on urgent action needed on an important piece of legislation: SJ 307, a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution to protect property rights from excessive eminent domain and provide just compensation to landowners when a public taking truly is necessary. The patron of the resolution, Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg), subsequent to the post, asked the sub-committee to carry it over to this Tuesday morning — and we desperately need you to contact your members of the sub-committee, and urge them to vote for the resolution (click here for sub-committee members)!

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its deplorable Kelo decision several years ago — it said while the federal courts could not protect property owners from local and state governments — it basically invited states to enact their own protections. Most did. Why are Virginians still waiting for their legislature to act?

Right now, lobbyists for local governments — who use your hard-earned tax dollars to work against your rights at the General Assembly — and large utilities and telecoms are working behind the scenes with their considerable resources, to strengthen their hand for your property. No less than 10 government and corporate groups are lined up against this amendment, while The Family Foundation (see our Constitutional Government paper), The Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council are among the few working for the many — that is, the people.

Without property rights, we don’t have secure homes. Without property rights, we don’t have the security to practice our faith. Without property rights, we have no economic security. Local and state government have eyes bigger than their stomachs for homes, farms and small businesses to feed their economic development schemes. They’ve taken private property and turned it over to developers and corporations for malls and office parks, or for transportation boondoggles. In one heinous case in Hampton, the city took private property for a pittance, and then sold it to a developer for millions while the original owner saw none of the extra money.

At one time, Virginia was a leader in protecting property rights and our Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, ensured these rights in the Commonwealth’s constitution. However, in the last constitutional revision in the early 1970s, they were diminished. But now, with a reawakening of Founding Principles across Virginia and the nation, there is real momentum this year for true reform.

While Big Government and Big Corporations have much money, we have many voices – and they matter! You are a force equalizer. Please contact these senator and express your desire to see Virginia protect your property rights — your homes, farms and businesses!

New Jersey: A Nice Place For Education Reform

There's an old saying that, "New Jersey is a nice place to be from." Despite its reputation and the brunt of numerous jokes, New Jersey soon may be the place for cutting edge education reform. At least from an education freedom viewpoint, our friends to the north are getting closer to bringing education freedom and choice to families than we are here in Virginia. Earlier this month, the New Jersey Senate advanced a bill similar to legislation The Family Foundation advocates for here in Virginia that creates a tax credit for donations made to private scholarship foundations. The foundations then can give scholarships to students that meet certain eligibility criteria so that they can attend a school of their choice. Unflattering, and deceptively called a "voucher" by opponents and the mainstream media, these scholarship programs have seen great success in several places, from Florida to Pennsylvania.

The fact that New Jersey is attempting to join the growing list of states that offer this education freedom while Virginia continues to stall shows just how quickly we are falling behind more modern education movements in other states. The legislation in New Jersey faced the opposition of the powerful New Jersey Education Association (sister to our own anti-reform, left-wing Virginia Education Association). But through the leadership of Governor Chris Christie and several Democrat legislators, including a key committee chairman, the bill is advancing — complete with the drama of the Senate committee moving its meeting outside the capitol so that thousands of school choice advocates holding a rally could hear the debate.

Opposition to education reform, such as scholarship programs, continue to be stuck in the past. African-American leaders and legislators all over the country are beginning to reject the typical accusations that these tax credits will "drain money from public schools" or reestablish segregation. Even the Newark Star-Ledger, which has one of the most liberal editorial boards in the nation, has endorsed the tax credit bill.

In fact, the bill introduced by Delegate Jimmie Massie (R-72, Henrico) during this year’s legislative session would have saved the state and local governments money while reducing class sizes (children leaving for private schools), thereby improving teacher-student ratios, something the education establishment claims it wants. Far from hurting low-income families in urban areas, the private-aid scholarship program the bill would establish would provide them a way out of failing schools that are not meeting their needs nor preparing them to be able to compete in a global economy.

Momentum for school choice is growing. Successful programs in Florida, Arizona and other states are improving education outcomes for many children, despite efforts to block them. In the Arizona case, the U.S. Supreme Court will review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision declaring education freedom is unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit is the most overturned appeals court in the nation and is infamous for its overtly radical decisions. Stay tuned. There will be a lot of action in on this important matter in New Jersey, Arizona and even here in Virginia.

More Can't Miss Video: Senate Finance Committee Empowers Local Government Over Taxpayers!

The crush and pace of the Virginia General Assembly creates a dilemma: We cover a lot of ground and witness a lot of things, good and bad, almost all nearly impossible to relate. We do our best, but we hear it all the time from supporters who come to committee meetings: You really can't believe it until you see if for yourself (at least we have video now). A lot of stuff sits in the file because we're forced to move on to other topics: Such is the pace of 2,600 bills in 60 days. Don't blog something one day, it's old news the next. After all, our first priority is working on legislation. However, several days ago, HB 570 was before the Senate Finance Committee. It preceded this infamous bill hearing (you must see this if you haven't; click here). This bill, patroned by Delegate Sal Iaquinto (R-84, Virginia Beach) would level the playing field when property owners appeal their often over assessed homes in order to reduce their already overwhelming tax burdens. Besides, if the government has a good case, it will still win. A no-brainer, right? Not!

Currently, and the way it will now remain for at least another year, the homeowner is the equivalent to guilty until proven innocent, and low-income people can’t even afford to hire an appraiser and other expenses required to overcome the burden of proof. (That's why advocates for low-income families joined us in supporting the bill.) Tellingly, the bill’s defeat was heavily targeted by a plethora of local governments and associated organizations whose goal is to further government’s prosperity and not that of the family or individual. One witness favoring the bill exposed their intentions by asking if they would be against this bill would help them overcome an unfair burden against the homeowner.

Hypocritically, in criticizing the bill, ultra liberal Senator Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31, Arlington) said that the jurisdictions she represents receive a disproportionate amount of local tax revenue from commercial properties and the bill did not exempt those buildings from the proposed new appeal process. When Delegate Iaquinto said he agreed and would accept that as a friendly amendment, she shot back, “I’m not going to offer that!” More hypocrisy was exposed when Senator John Watkins (R-10, Powhatan) offered a friendly amendment to rectify another complaint. Another ally was Senator William Wampler (R-40, Bristol), who made procedural motions to advance the bill. Yet, the bill still went down on a straight party line vote, 9-5, with Senator Fred Quayle (R-13, Suffolk) absent from the vote.

But, no need for me to try to capture the ignominy. See it for yourself. The entire debate is below in two parts.

Delegate Iaquinto makes a persuasive, commonsense case on behalf of home owners . . .

then the forces of big government preach government prosperity at the expense of individuals and families. So much for government guaranteeing individual rights and a fair day in court.

Your Local Assessor As The IRS: Virginia's Unfair Assessment Appeal Is Government's Advantage Over Taxpayer (As Usual)

One of the biggest aggravations — and financial hardships — local governments place on taxpaying families and individuals is the assessments on their houses. Not only are local property tax rates often much too high, the assessments are as well, resulting in a double infliction of financial pain. Of course, by law, localities must allow homeowners an appeals process if a homeowner thinks the assessment is too high. But, as usual in Virginia, we have laws to remedy a problem that are nothing more than window dressing, so that legislators can say, "We have a law," (and plaster it all over campaign brochures). In fact, it's said Virginia has laws to prevent solutions (such as our restrictive charter school law).

Virginia’s assessment appeals process is such a case and is counterproductive to a fair appeal. It’s almost like an IRS appeal where you are guilty until proven innocent. In the case of an assessment appeal, you must prove the assessor wrong — he or she has no burden to prove your property is valued at fair market value. It is such a stacked system that most aggrieved homeowners don’t even attempt to appeal and end up paying more than they should of their hard-earned income in local property taxes.

However, now there's a chance to reform this overly slanted playing field in favor of the government to a level playing field for all homeowners. Delegate Sal Iaquinto (R-84, Virginia Beach) is patroning HB 570. It passed the House 86-13 and will be voted on in the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

Please contact members of the committee (click here) and ask them to report this bill to the floor so that taxpayers, homeowners and families finally can receive a bit of tax fairness.

According to fiscal impact statement attached to HB 570 (and these statements normally sink a bill, so it's nice to have one that offers clarity on the subject) the bill would . . .

shift the burden of proof from the taxpayer to the assessor when the taxpayer appeals the assessment of real property to a Board of Equalization or to a circuit court, and would remove the presumption that the assessor’s valuation of real property is correct. The assessor would have the burden of proving that the property in question is valued at its fair market value or that the assessment is uniform in its application, or that the assessment is otherwise valid or legal.

In addition, currently, in all such cases, the taxpayer has the burden of proving that the property in question is valued at more than its fair market value — and is . . .

required to produce substantial evidence that the valuation determined by the assessor is erroneous and was not arrived at in accordance with generally accepted appraisal practice in order to receive relief.

Perhaps there is nothing in Virginia more contrary to American due process than our process to appeal unjust property assessments — assessments localities use to milk its residents for their unquenchable thirst for more tax revenue. Wednesday may be the day Virginia takes a big step toward reversing that and not just "having a law" for the sake of having a law, but having a law that puts its citizens first.

Reworking A Bad Plan Can Make It Worse (Or, The Son Of 3202 Rises)

The Special Tax Session of the General Assembly resumes tomorrow and anything can happen. Some capitol insiders are predicting the session could end by the end of the day, with nothing done. That would be good. Some think the House could pass some watered down Senate tax increase, send it back to Senate Majority Leader Dick "The People Will Pay" Saslaw (D-35, Springfield) and his crowd down the hall, who will change it and take it to a conference committee, which would be dangerous enough. But others think that if anything gets out of the House, Senate Dems will pass it immediately and let Governor Tim Kaine amend it to include all the extra taxes his heart desires (we'd say that would be Christmas in July for the liberals, except many don't believe . . . oh, never mind) and send it back for an up or down vote. If that version passes, it would be a Kaine victory at the expense (literally) of the public; a taxpayer loss. If nothing happens, believe your bottom dollar (that may be all you have left right now) that the governor and the Dems will demonize conservatives as not wanting to address the transportation "crisis." 

They better be careful for what they ask. It may be anecdotal, but evidence is the public, across all lines, doesn't seem to have much of an appetite for tax increases when gas is at $4.00 a gallon and all the ripple effect cost increases it is causing. Senator Saslaw during the regular session was fond of saying that his gas tax increase would cost the equivalent of one Big Mac meal per year. Actually, it was closer to a Ruth Chris dinner, but regardless, most families don't even have a Big Mac to cut back right now.

Not only that, but his proposal in the winter was a 5-cent increase over five years. Now, I guess because he wants us to cut back on apple turnovers, too, his bill would increase the gas tax by six cents over six years (SB 6009). That's a 35-percent increase. It doesn't appear as if this will pass. The House Republican leadership let it come to the floor in a procedural move in committee to force House Dems to vote on recordin anticipation of next year's House elections. The money is on many House Dems getting cold feet on this one.

However (there's always a "however"), the House GOP doesn't want to get left out of the game. They want to be sure no one can claim they have no ideas themselves, so instead of no ideas they are proposing old and bad ideas. They want to "fix" the aspect of last year's transportation package (HB 3202) that the Virginia Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional. This new package, HB 6055, patroned by Delegate Phil Hamilton (R-93, Newport News) is more complex, but is also harmful to taxpayers and the economy. Its main feature is to give local governments in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia taxing authority in certain areas so as to spend it themselves for transportation, rather than the original, and unconstitutional, law that let unelected boards tax and spend. (To be fair, the original bill passed by the House in 2007 was to give local governments the authority; the governor amended it to give it to the unelected boards, and bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly concurred.)

While many legislators may make the political calculation that by "simply fixing" last year's plan (by voting for HB 6055) Virginians won't consider it a vote to raise taxes, they may be calculating wrong. People want the General Assembly to make hard decisions instead of asking for more money from families — again. Smart citizens know fixing a bad plan often makes it still worse. 

Among the various taxes in HB 6055 is one particularly heinous tax — a $.40 per $100 increase in the "grantor's tax" in Northern Virginia. This is a tax home sellers pay at closing. As home sales continue to plummet, and some of those sales are "short" (sold for less than what is owed on it), such a tax is reckless. 

Earlier this month, while detailing the state's current financial picture, Secretary of Finance Jody Wagner revealed a devastating downward trend in home sales to the House Appropriations Committee. At the time, several Republicans appropriately drilled Secretary Wagner regarding Governor Kaine's transportation proposal that included a grantor's tax. It would be peculiar for those same legislators to agree to one now, but this is the General Assembly, after all. Regardless of whether the tax is introduced by Democrats or Republicans, the governor, the Senate or the House, the effect on the housing industry is the same — it will ensure a housing recession.

HB 6055 also includes a $20 increase in the car inspection fee in Hampton Roads, an extra $100 fee on those who receive their first drivers license (in N.Va.), a hotel tax (N.Va.) and a rental car tax (in both areas), among others. Americans For Tax Reform mailed each legislator who signed its No Tax Pledge that a vote to pass the tax-increasing buck to localities is still a tax increase and violates the pledge.

Four years ago, then-Governor Mark Warner cited education, health and public safety to pass the largest tax hike in the Commonwealth's history. Apparently, in 2004, transportation was no longer the "crisis" Warner had said it was in 2002 when he tried unsuccessfully to pass regional sales tax hikes for transportation via referenda in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. Now, Governor Kaine and some allies in the legislature have decided to dust off the transportation "crisis" to raise taxes. This action comes only a few months after they proposed raiding the Transportation Trust Fund for non-transportation expenditures.

Some of the same lawmakers who opposed a constitutional amendment restricting the Transportation Trust Fund to transportation-only spending now support a tax hike.  Even Governor Kaine, prior to his election, endorsed a "lock-box" to secure transportation funds from general fund spending and tax increases. Three years later, he has done nothing to support efforts to secure one. So what we're left with is a thinly veiled attempt to raise taxes on Virginia's families simply to raise money, not specifically for transportation. 

Besides that, it appears HB 6055 is more flexible than a Russian gymnast. Specific projects are to be carried out "in consultation with members of the General Assembly" — whatever that might mean. Sadly, the level of linguistic complexity required to raise some taxes in some areas, that affect only some people in order to fix some transportation needs, all while appearing as if no taxes are being raised, makes for a legislative nightmare.     

The bottom line is that for over a decade the General Assembly has bowed to the powerful education union and funded public education incorrectly, refused to reduce spending in pet projects, and counted on Virginians to pony up under the threat of disaster. If this mentality doesn't change now, in difficult economic times, what will it be like in good times? Believe me, it will be Bonnie and Clyde all over again, with a new crisis (health care or Medicare, perhaps?) and guess who they think is the bank?

The good news is that this can be stopped. Many legislators are being pressured by big-time lobbyists of big businesses who will benefit from government spending, from the teachers union which wants to ensure their portion of the pie isn't touched, and other special interest groups. But when enough concerned voters let their senators and delegates know enough is enough, it gives them the courage to resist the special interest pressures (click here to contact them). Instead of raising taxes, it is time for them to get some new ideas, such as comprehensive spending and budget reform.