09/15/10: Bring Virginia’s constitution into the 21st century

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times, with the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified simultaneously in 1791. The process for amending — a proposal either by Congress or via a constitutional convention and then ratification by three-fourths of the states — has limited the number of amendments. Some, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, have been proposed but never ratified.

Amendments to the Virginia constitution also require a two-step proposal and ratification process. Proposed amendments come as the result of passage by the General Assembly twice, with an election of the House of Delegates in between, or by a constitutional convention. An affirmative vote of the people results in ratification.

Virginia’s constitution is  frequently amended. In 2006, for example, there were three amendments, all successfully ratified, including one on the partial exemption from real estate taxes for certain properties in conservation, redevelopment and rehabilitation areas. Another related to the incorporation of churches, a consequence of a provision prohibiting it having been ruled unconstitutional.

Part of the reason for the frequent amendments is the Dillon Rule, which keeps the power in the legislature rather than the localities.

The constitution provides, for example, that all real estate is to be assessed at fair market value. Such an explicit  edict requires an amendment any time there is a desire for an exception.

This year, voters in Virginia will weigh in on three proposed amendments, two of which deal with real estate tax exemptions.

Ballot question No. 1 will allow localities to establish their own income and net worth limitations for tax relief for seniors and the disabled. Ballot question No. 2 will allow exemption from real estate taxes for veterans with 100 percent service-connected permanent disability. And ballot question No. 3 would allow the state’s reserve, or “rainy day,” fund to be 15 percent of revenues as opposed to 10 percent.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato believes it is time for a federal constitutional convention. I think it’s time for one in Virginia.

It has been almost 30 years since the Virginia constitution was last rewritten. The frequency of amendments says it all: The constitution, in its current form, is far too specific in too many areas. By my count, there have been more than 40 amendments in 29 years, not including the three on November’s ballot. By contrast, in 219 years, the U.S. constitution has been amended 17 times.

Why shouldn’t the General Assembly be able to set, via a general law, the size of the rainy day fund? That entire section of the constitution was added via amendment in 1993. Does the constitution really have to say that the people have the right to fish and hunt? That section was added via amendment in 2001. The section on property exempt from taxation has been amended seven times alone.

A revised constitution would allow language broad enough not to require such frequent amendment. It also would be a great time to revisit Virginia’s adherence to the antiquated Dillon Rule, a shackle that most other states have thrown off.

Finally, it would allow an opportunity to determine if constitutional officers, frequently in the news of late, are really a necessity.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” The time has come for Virginia to undergo its revolution, although not with a sword but with a pen.