Senate Meals Tax Bill Keeps A Foot On Rural Virginia's Neck

Published 2:40 pm Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Virginia Senate voted on January 28 to give two very urban counties a right that has not, and would not, be granted to all counties in the Commonwealth.

Fortunately, the measure died last week in the House Finance Committee.

Though the Senate bill was bad enough, the implications for rural Virginia run even deeper.

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In Virginia, the Dillon Rule stipulates that local governments possess only the powers expressly given them by the state. If the state doesn't say you can do it, you cannot.

Cities and towns, for example, can establish a meals tax through a simple vote of their elected councils. Counties, on the other hand cannot. A meals tax requires passage of a referendum.

Unless you are Henrico or Chesterfield Counties, if the bill passed by the Senate had become law.

And that seems fundamentally unsound and unfair.

A right should exist for all counties or none at all.

Many senators seemed to understand that point because the vote was 23-17-a switch of just three votes would have created a tie-and came after a lengthy debate.

The bill further divided urban and rural Virginia by stipulating that only localities which maintain their own roads and, additionally, border an incorporated city that also does its own roadwork could vote in a meals tax.

The Chesterfield and Henrico Boards of Supervisors would have to unanimously vote to institute a meals tax, as well. A 2005 meals tax referendum in Henrico, by the way, was narrowly defeated by voters.

But the point is that, whatever the requirements, an important power would be given to some, to a few, rather than all, had the legislation passed the House of Delegates and was signed into law by the governor.

The spirit of the Three Musketeers would be a far, far better thing: all for one and one for all.

Give every county the right to impose a meals tax by a vote of its governing body or give no county the authority. Regardless of how one feels about a meals tax, and Buckingham residents handily defeated a referendum in November, a precedent should not be created or extended where the state picks and chooses which localities have which rights.

A meals tax today, who knows what tomorrow.

And that would be very hard to swallow.

But there is an additional consideration of fairness, as well. Though rural counties do not maintain their own roads they do have huge expenses that are critically important-the education of their children and public safety, for example.

Though the Senate action seemed wrapped around road maintenance as the key to acquiring the meals tax right, Senator John Watkins let us see a wider design. The state, Sen. Watkins argued, has forced financial hardships on localities, failing to provide sufficient state funds for teachers and forcing them to ante up more to the Virginia Retirement System.

Oh, yes, of course. The children of urban counties such as Henrico and Chesterfield matter more than those in Buckingham, Cumberland or Prince Edward, eh? And rural localities do not face the same funding shortfalls for teachers and the VRS.


That's right.

They do.

We do.

Sen. Watkins is the very same Sen. Watkins who gave us the surprise 22nd district-shredding Senate Redistricting plan that would have, and still might, put all of Cumberland, some of Buckingham and some of Prince Edward, including Farmville, in his 10th Senate District that includes swaths of Henrico, Chesterfield and the City of Richmond.

We can guess whose voice would be heard loudest and to greatest effect in such a Senate District.

“At least this gives local governments a tool in the toolbox,” said Sen. Watkins, making his stand.

Which local governments, senator?

Of course.

The senator has constituents in Henrico and Chesterfield.

That's what I thought.

This bill provided another real time view of the severely tilted, pro-urban dynamic and emphasis at work in the General Assembly. There is an anti-rural bias, intentional or not. There are bills to give urban localities, and only urban localities, financial tools not given to rural localities that face the same funding challenges.

Doing so, or trying to, may be constitutional, but that doesn't make it right.

Rural localities should have, must have, the same rights, the same tools as their urban counterparts. Our children, our future, matter just as much.