A voter’s guide to the Nov. 6 ballot

What are those amendments all about?

By Christina Dimeo, editor

Next Tuesday’s (Nov. 6) midterm election is a big deal to people of all political stripes. Information and opinions abound on how Fluvanna voters should cast their ballots in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives races.

Less discussed are the Virginia constitutional amendments that seem to pop up on the ballot every year. What are they and what exactly do they mean – in plain English?

Question one
Proposed constitutional amendment question one reads: “Should a county, city or town be authorized to provide a partial tax exemption for real property that is subject to recurrent flooding, if flooding resiliency improvements have been made on the property?”

Most “real property” – loosely translated to mean real estate – is taxed in Virginia. But under certain conditions localities, like Fluvanna County, can exempt some properties from those taxes. This amendment would give Fluvanna the ability to decide whether or not to partially exempt from real estate taxes properties that flood a lot – when their owners have fixed up the property in an attempt to stop the flooding.

Other exemptions that are already in the Virginia Constitution include properties owned by religious bodies, such as churches; nonprofit cemeteries; certain properties that have undergone substantial renovation; and properties with new structures built in a redevelopment area.

Local option
Delegate Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), who represents part of Fluvanna in the 58th District, pointed out that this amendment is a local option. “All it does is allow the locality to do things if they want to…which is different than the state telling you what you can’t do,” he said.

Some localities near Virginia’s coast, and even nearby Greene County, have experienced such flooding recently that they wanted the ability to partially exempt from real estate taxes homeowners who undertook flood abatement measures, Bell said. As the law stands right now, they can’t.

If this issue doesn’t resonate with a particular county, the county doesn’t have to enact the exemption.

Why is it just a partial tax exemption?
“The thought is that [the property] still has some value. We want this person to pay some taxes,” Bell said. “You want to allow the locality to create incentives for someone to [take flood abatement measures on their property]. If you increase the value of the property through [these measures], then a partial exemption could be useful.”

Who loses out on the tax dollars?
The localities using the exemption would miss out on the tax dollars – the state wouldn’t make them up. “There’s no obligation to do it, [it’s just] if they think this is something they’d like to do,” Bell said.

Why should flood-prone properties get help when others don’t?
“When you do some flood abatement – everything from different vegetation [that makes your property] into a wetland that soaks up some water, to raising the ground level, to not building so low – the thought is that there is some benefit to everybody, not just to the property owner,” Bell said.

“If the locality thinks this is something that helps everybody and they want to provide some incentives to do these things, we’re going to let them do that,” he continued. “Right now they can’t. The whole idea is that we’re going to put this out to the people to decide.”

This amendment simply allows a locality to do something that right now it’s not permitted to do. Fluvanna County may or may not extend this tax benefit to its residents.

A possible pro: You might want to vote for this amendment if you think Fluvanna should be able to make this kind of decision for itself.

A possible con: You might not want to vote for this amendment if you don’t agree that this choice should be open to localities.

Question two
Proposed constitutional amendment question two reads: “Shall the real property tax exemption for a primary residence that is currently provided to the surviving spouses of veterans who had a 100 percent service-connected, permanent and total disability be amended to allow the surviving spouse to move to a different primary residence and still claim the exemption?”

Veterans who have had a “100 percent service-connected, permanent and total disability” already receive certain benefits under Virginia law. Their main home is exempt from taxation. If they die, surviving spouses also receive the benefit if they do not remarry, so long as they continue to occupy that same residence.

If a spouse moves, however, he or she loses that benefit. This amendment would change that.

This amendment “deals with something we didn’t foresee,” said Bell. “A few years ago we had an issue of a veteran [who was disabled according to the definition above]… We don’t want somebody with those kind of injuries losing their house. The public endorsed it; that went into the Constitution. We had the issue of the widow; that was a second amendment. This one would add simply that she can change the physical house… It was a scenario that no one had come up with. Someone said, ‘Gosh, what if it’s a five-bedroom house and she’s ready to downsize? Does it have to be the exact same building?’”

What if the spouse wants to move to a larger house for a bigger tax break?
If the home in question is the spouse’s primary residence, then the exemption would still apply. “If she’s the widow of a 100 percent disabled vet and it’s her primary residence, I’m not somebody who would sit there counting bedrooms if she had a place that’s a better fit for her,” Bell said. “But that’s something that the voters can decide.”

This amendment takes a benefit that is already available to a surviving spouse of a disabled veteran and allows him or her to move houses and retain the benefit.

Possible pro: You might want to vote for this amendment if you want spouses of disabled veterans to be able to move houses as their life situations change without losing their tax benefit.

Possible con: You might not want to vote for this amendment if you believe that moving out of the original home is a reason to lose the tax benefit.

Other questions
Non-partisan issues
These amendments are non-partisan. Republicans and Democrats do not seem to have different opinions on whether they should be passed. The flood abatement question passed the Virginia Senate 36-4 and passed the Virginia House 89-8, Bell said. The spouse of a disabled veteran question passed both chambers unanimously.

Constitutional amendment process
A proposed constitutional amendment has to pass two different General Assemblies with an intervening election between them. If it passes twice then it is typically put on the ballot that year, Bell said.

“It’s one of the few things the governor doesn’t have a direct role in,” he said. “Instead of the governor signing the bill, it goes to the public for their approval or disapproval.”

Why are these issues dealt with via constitutional amendment?
The U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1789 and, after all these years, still has only 27 amendments. Amending the Constitution seems like a grand proposition. Why are so many small issues codified into the Virginia Constitution?

“The entire [Virginia] Constitution has been rewritten several times,” Bell said. The current Constitution dates to 1971 – a mere 47 years ago.

“Some people say, ‘Why do we need a constitutional amendment to modify vet property rules?’” Bell said. “It’s in the Constitution that you can’t do it. If you want to allow it, you need to change the Constitution.”

There’s a second reason these issues end up arising as proposed amendments. “It’s such a big deal that once you finally reach a decision it’s harder to change it than if it’s a law,” Bell said. “A law can be changed by a transitory majority. Once it’s in the Constitution it’s harder to undo.”

Meals tax
Fluvanna voters will decide whether the county should enact a 4 percent tax on meals at restaurants or ready-to-eat foods sold through grocery stores, food trucks or similar establishments. For more information about the proposed meals tax click here.

National races
Voters will have the opportunity to choose between incumbent Senator Tim Kaine (D) and challengers Corey Stewart (R) and Matt Waters (L). The six-year term expires at the end of 2024.

House of Representatives
Voters will select Leslie Cockburn (D) or Denver Riggleman (R) to represent the 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Current Representative Tom Garrett (R-Buckingham) is not seeking re-election. The two-year term expires at the end of 2020.

Next year
In contrast to this year, 2019 will be filled with local races. Up for election are:

Board of Supervisors:
Supervisor Mozell Booker’s Fork Union District seat; and
Supervisor Trish Eager’s Palmyra District seat.
The terms of Supervisors Tony O’Brien (Rivanna), Mike Sheridan (Columbia), and Don Weaver (Cunningham) do not expire until the end of 2021.

School Board:
School Board member Perrie Johnson’s Fork Union District seat; and
School Board member Brenda Pace’s Palmyra District seat.
The terms of Shirley Stewart (Rivanna), Andrew Pullen (Columbia), and Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham) do not expire until the end of 2021.

Constitutional officers:
Commissioner of Revenue Mel Sheridan’s position;
Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeff Haislip’s position;
Sheriff Eric Hess’ position; and
Treasurer Linda Lenherr’s position.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Tristana Treadway holds an eight-year term that will not expire until the end of 2023.

Virginia House of Delegates:
The position of Delegate Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), who represents part of Fluvanna in the 58th District, will be up for election; and
The position of Delegate Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), who represents part of Fluvanna in the 65th District, will be up for election.

Virginia Senate:
The position of Senator Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg), who represents all of Fluvanna in the 22nd District, will be up for election.

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