David Cox | The insidiousness of mandates
Q: What’s a fabulous idea that somebody thinks up, takes credit for, and makes someone else pay for?
A: An unfunded mandate.
And oh, do those ideas abound in Washington and, more relevantly for today, Richmond.
If anyone wonders why property taxes keep rising, unfunded mandates are one reason.
They start with very worthy goals. For example, Senate Joint Resolution 275 is currently making its way through the General Assembly. This bill proposes a constitutional amendment to relieve veterans who have been certified to be 100% disabled, as a result of his or her service, from paying property tax.
What person of compassion and/or patriotism could object to recognizing, honoring, and supporting our disabled veterans for their service and sacrifice? It’s a no-brainer, right?
Maybe not. And that’s the insidiousness of mandates. They sound so good, that surely others will pay for them.
Notice, first, that Virginia state legislators propose this tax break out of consideration for people who have earned it—and they will no doubt cite their magnanimity at the next election. However, the cost of this program will not come out of the state coffers, which they oversee, but rather the localities’ budgets, which are the purview of city councils and county supervisors. Property taxes are among the few sources of revenue that these boards have left to balance their budgets. In other words, this undeniably charitable measure will be paid for directly by property-owners, either through higher real estate taxes or lowered services.
That, in turn, puts the veterans in an awkward position, either being perceived, or feeling themselves, to be burdens on the friends and neighbors in their own community.
Consider, too, the practical quandary of fairness: Why exempt the veteran who is 100% disabled but not the veteran next door who is 95% disabled; or the neighbor down the road whose spouse died in combat service to our nation?
That aside, one has to ask about the fairness of demanding that someone else pay for a good idea, no matter how worthy the idea may be: And that is the fundamental problem of unfunded mandates.
If the legislature wants to help disabled vets, a worthy objective if there ever was one, it has alternatives. It could write into the constitutional amendment, for instance, that the state shall reimburse fully the localities for any property taxes paid under this program. Of course, that guarantee has to bear the ironclad mandate of the constitution: remember the car tax fiasco that still encumbers us?
Or, instead of exempting property taxes, the Assembly could exempt their retirement income: here is a state tax, so that losing that income would be the Assembly’s problem to deal with instead of foisting it upon counties and cities.
Of course, either of these solutions levies a cost, though not as directly, to us as part of the Commonwealth. But at least these would be more honest: if helping our disabled veterans claims a priority, then let those who decide that priority pay for it out of their budgets rather than from those of other entities.
Or if the Assembly wants to give permission for a locality to exempt these people from property taxes, fine by me so long as it’s not required: That meets the principle of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Ah, but it’s so much easier to take lofty actions, so long as someone else bears the pain.
And, surely enough, on Monday our state senate passed SJR 275 unanimously and without objection—meaning that not a single senator bothered to count the cost, or ask who would bear it.
– Column by David Cox