10/16/16: Amendments on a crowded ballot

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

TWO AMENDMENTS to the Virginia Constitution will take their place on a very crowded ballot next month. You may have heard about the first but little attention has been paid to the second. A little background is in order.

The second amendment adds Section 6-B in Article X, Taxation and Finance. This amendment would allow the General Assembly to pass legislation to allow localities to exempt from real estate tax the personal residence of surviving spouses of certain emergency service providers – law enforcement officers, firefighters, search and rescue personnel, emergency medical service personnel – killed in the line of duty, provided the spouse has not remarried.

As I mentioned in a previous column, this amendment is necessary because the previous amendments included in Section 6-A did not include these personnel. But there is another reason: the Dillon Rule.

Judge John Dillion of Iowa issued two rulings in the late 1800s that defined the powers of local government. Essentially, Dillon didn’t trust localities to self-govern. Since Virginia is an adherent to the rule, localities are prohibited from doing anything without express permission from the state.

When localities wanted to implement a smoking ban, they were prohibited from doing so until the General Assembly allowed it. Similarly, when localities wanted to elect their school boards, they had to wait for the state to let them.

Real estate taxes are assessed and collected by localities, but only within the bounds set by the legislature. A locality seeking to exempt certain groups from the tax – be it seniors, the disabled, surviving spouses – or to exempt a portion from the tax – like a homestead exemption taxpayers enjoy in other states – can’t do so without permission.

The exemptions granted in Section 6-A of the state constitution, which exempt from real estate taxes the personal residences of eligible veterans and their spouses, as well as spouses of Armed Forces members killed in action, are mandatory for localities. The proposed Section 6-B, if the amendment passes, would make it an option for localities to adopt the exemption for the surviving spouses of emergency service personnel.

Allowing the localities to decide for themselves on this represents a loosening of the Dillon Rule, which I think is a good thing. Given that localities rely heavily on the real estate tax for funding, some may adopt and others may not. This is as it should be. I wish our legislature, which holds Thomas Jefferson is such high regard, would take his words to heart: “That government is best which is closest to the people.”

The first proposed amendment on the ballot is the one that has garnered the most attention. It puts into the state constitution Virginia’s existing right-to-work law. The term “right-to-work” has been bandied about in recent years in the national media and 26 states have such laws on the books. Essentially, right-to-work means that agreements between employers and unions cannot limit employment to union members only, also known as a closed shop.

Union membership has been on the decline for years. Only 11.1 percent of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2015; by comparison, that figure was 20.1 percent in 1983. Virginia ranks 43rd out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, with just 5.4 percent of its workers members of a union.

Part of the reason why Virginia has such low union membership is because it has long been a right-to-work state. Since 1947, right-to-work has been the law and declared public policy.

So why put it in the constitution? Has the legislature run across closed shops or attempts by employers to have closed shops, which would be clearly illegal? No – and no one is claiming that they have.

The only reason for enshrining this law into the constitution – much like the marriage provision – is to bind future legislatures. It is much harder to change the constitution – note that the marriage provision still exists, despite being unconstitutional – than to just change the law.

Right-to-work has existed in Virginia for nearly 70 years without it being in our constitution. I see no need for it to be added now.