By Lindsay Cates
Voters in Virginia know they will be faced with choosing among candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot. But many might still be unaware they will be voting on an amendment to the state constitution as well.
The Virginia General Assembly is proposing an amendment that would grant property tax exemption for surviving spouses of soldiers killed in action. The exemption would eliminate the tax on real property owned by the spouse, meaning land and any structures on the land.
But even an official with the Shenandoah Valley Veterans Center was unaware that the proposal was on the ballot. Once told of it, Executive Director Michael Deavers decided it was the right idea.
“It’s definitely a good thing,” Deavers said. “The spouses are the ones really giving everything, so why shouldn’t they be compensated in some way for that?”
According to Deavers, Rockbridge County has a high number of retired veterans. That’s partly due to Virginia Military Institute’s presence, he said, but many veterans besides VMI graduates enjoy being in more rural areas after returning from active duty.
According to The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, slightly more than 1,900 veterans live in Rockbridge County and veterans own one-third of the homes. Those figures do not include Lexington and Buena Vista.
The Virginia constitution currently grants property tax exemption to a husband and wife for veterans with a permanent disability, and the surviving spouse of the veteran as long as he or she does not remarry.
A 2010 study done by Virginia Tech for the Wounded Warrior Program reported that Virginia has had more than 260,000 veterans who have served since 2001, the highest ratio of all 50 states. Virginia also ranks seventh among the states in total veteran population.
Deavers said the high numbers of veterans in Virginia might be part of the reason the legislature is proposing the change.
“One-quarter of all active duty service members are located in the Hampton Roads area,” Deavers said. “There are also high populations of veterans in Richmond and Washington D.C.”
According to research done last year for a similar proposal, at least 10 states appear to offer property tax relief specifically for surviving spouses of soldiers killed in action, including Maryland, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
In November 2012 voters in Texas passed by a landslide an amendment to extend full or partial property tax exemption to surviving spouses of soldiers killed in action.
Deavers said the only argument he can think of against passing the amendment would be the potential loss of revenue for local governments.
According to Rockbridge County Commissioner of the Revenue David Whitesell, for the tax year 2014 Rockbridge County exempted $8,406,070 in value for disabled veterans, which totaled $60,103.40 in tax revenue.
Whitesell said there have not been exact figures drawn up for the proposed change, but if passed the amendment would more than likely not have much of an impact on tax collections locally.
The amendment voters will see on the ballot in November would be an add-on to the current law, but area veterans say they would love the General Assembly to consider taking the law even further in the future.
“Personally, I’d like to see that exemption extended even further to include veterans who have retired out of the military,” Deavers said. “But I’m not talking about those who have served just a few years. I’m talking about veterans who retired after serving 20 years or more.”
The proposed amendment was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but will become effective only on approval of a simple majority of the voters by referendum.
Here is what voters can expect to see on the ballot:
Question: Shall Section 6-A of Article X (Taxation and Finance) be amended to allow the General Assembly to exempt from taxation the real property of the surviving spouse of any member of the armed forces of the United States who was killed in action, where the surviving spouse occupies the real property as his or her principal place of residence and has not remarried?
For more information on the proposed amendment visit www.sbe.virginia.gov.