- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Virginia Republicans yesterday announced a plan to cut property-tax bills — the latest in a series of election-year promises to keep control of the General Assembly.

The plan includes a constitutional amendment Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, started pushing during his gubernatorial campaign two years ago, which would allow localities to exempt as much as 20 percent of a home’s value from real-estate taxes.

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” said Delacey Skinner, the governor’s spokeswoman. “We’re really pleased to have their support.”

Republicans said they would push to require local governments to set tax rates before approving budgets and put the burden of proof for assessment increases on localities when an increase exceeds 20 percent.

Borrowing another concept from Mr. Kaine, Republicans also want localities to clarify for voters what their property-tax burden is and how it will change under a new assessment and rate.

“We should not be forcing fixed-income citizens to choose between paying these skyrocketing tax bills and selling the homes they have worked their whole lives to obtain,” said Delegate John J. Welch III, Virginia Beach Republican. “The reforms Republicans are proposing will ensure a more responsible and responsive government and give taxpayers a much-deserved break.”

The constitutional change must pass the General Assembly again next year before it can go to voters in a referendum in 2008. It won initial passage overwhelmingly this year.

While the overall effect on tax bills would remain unclear until local governments determine the amount of the exemption and who would be eligible for it, the plan could play well with Northern Virginia homeowners who have been saddled with increasing tax bills.

To drive home the point, Republicans yesterday pointed out that the average property assessment in Fairfax County this year increased 20.5 percent, while Loudoun County has seen an average 15 percent annual increase in recent years.

But Al Aitken, chairman of Virginians Over-Taxed On Residences, a 700-member grass-roots group pushing for a property-tax cap, said the proposed amendment lacks the teeth necessary to provide real tax relief.

“It guarantees nothing,” Mr. Aitken said. “The law only says things may happen, but still these delegates and senators can go home to their district and say, ‘I voted for reform to the real estate property-tax system.’ ”

The announcement was the latest reminder of the unified front Republicans have shown since bruising primary elections in which two conservative challengers defeated Republicans who supported former Democrat Gov. Mark R. Warner’s $1.38 billion tax package in 2004.

With just six weeks left before the election, Republicans hope the approach improves their chances of hanging onto a four-seat majority in the Senate, prevents Democrats from making inroads into the GOP’s 11-seat majority in the House and mitigates negative feelings from Sen. George Allen’s loss in the midterm election last year.

The strategy appears far different from the recent intraparty fights over transportation funding and taxes.

A year ago, anti-tax House and Senate negotiators gathered on separate floors of the General Assembly building in Richmond to create a strategy on how to impose their legislative will on one another.

The political atmosphere started to clear this year after a small group of Republican lawmakers hashed out a multibillion transportation package that passed the General Assembly.

While the controversial road-and-rail deal generated mixed reactions, it allowed Republicans to shelve an ideological divide that had separated them for years. It also gave them time to offer new ideas that they hope could help erase doubts about who should control the legislative agenda in Richmond.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder at news conferences, House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican, have proposed plans to crack down on illegal aliens, tighten mental-health laws and create a new fund for school construction.

Yesterday, Mr. Howell and Mr. Stosch were joined by Mr. Welch, Sen. Nick Rerras, of Virginia Beach, and Delegate Tim Hugo of Fairfax County — three Republicans targeted by Democrats in the coming election.

“A Republican-led Senate and House in 2008 will send to the governor these relief measures and more,” Mr. Stosch said.

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