- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

A bill now on the desk of Gov. James S. Gilmore III would allow localities to join together to float bonds without voter approval, taxpayer groups say just 16 months after Virginia voters rejected similar proposals.

Many state taxpayer organizations oppose the bill, and members gathered in Richmond yesterday to urge the governor to veto it.

Mr. Gilmore hasn't examined the bill yet, his office said yesterday. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a 3-to-1 margin.

Delegate Franklin P. Hall, Richmond Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said yesterday the version now before the governor answers all of the objections taxpayer groups had in 1998 and isn't meant to be a run-around for local governments to avoid accountability.

In November 1998, voters overwhelmingly defeated two amendments to the Virginia Constitution that would have given cities, counties and towns the right to join together and create an independent authority with the right to tax residents and issue bonds.

The constitution forbids counties from borrowing money without voter approval, and cities and towns can't issue more bonds if the new total would exceed the debt cap, which is equal to 10 percent of taxable real estate value.

The two 1998 proposals would have provided counties and cities with a way around such restrictions. One of the proposals also would have allowed the new authority to impose extra taxes on the area it controls.

Mr. Hall said his bill would limit new taxes only to commercial property under the authority's control meaning the area the authority was set up to govern. His proposal requires that each county, city or town that belongs to the authority approve the taxes first.

"We listened to their objections, and we corrected them in the bill," Mr. Hall said.

But opponents say the bill doesn't close the loophole that would allow counties, cities and towns to ignore their debt limitations.

"They modified it slightly, but the essence is still the same," said Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun County Republican, who voted against this year's bill and was one of the first lawmakers to oppose the amendments two years ago.

In some respects, each side seems to be talking about different situations.

Mr. Hall said only businesses in the new districts would be affected, not a jurisdiction's residential property owners.

He also said there are hundreds of authorities that already have the power to issue bonds.

But the bill's opponents say situations may arise in which two jurisdictions conspire to get around their debt limit by using the external authority.

"What is done with the law once it is enacted doesn't have a whole lot to do with what one legislator thinks is a good use for it," Mr. Black said.

And opponents worry that local officials will just use the authority whose members are not elected as a way to pass the buck for making decisions.

"The problem is the constituents living in the district don't know who to yell at," said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican and one of 25 House members who voted against the bill.

But Mr. Hall said he believes in the ultimate power of the ballot box. If voters disagree with the decision, he says, they can always throw their own public officials out and dissolve their obligations to the authority.

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