Virginia General Assembly 2019 – Hit and Miss

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Although the Virginia General Assembly 2019 session was very active including passing several bills that can be described as positive for the commonwealth, there were also a couple important misses.  The bills passed must yet either be signed by the governor or survive veto challenges.

The most important of these is the new budget.  The budget had to address the thorny issue of federal tax conformity.  What was approved, for the most part, was in the best interest of the commonwealth.  Most importantly it achieved the goal of ensuring the governor wasn’t allowed to abscond with a billion-dollar tax increase, that he would have spent primarily on wealth transfer programs, and returned the majority of the unintended tax increase to the taxpayers.  In fairness some social programs, much desired by the left, were funded in negotiations with the Democrats. Notable among several other accomplishments of the session is a pilot program to address homelessness at its core by preventing evictions.  This could have a backfiring effect in that those wishing to rent their properties will be more risk adverse in selecting potential renters.   Homelessness is an ever present and growing problem where remedies for those at risk, and in need of some support to return to regular rent payments, should be made available.

Ranking high on the list of importance was addressing the issue of redistricting and the legacy of gerrymandering in the state.  Efforts to place the 2020 census redistricting responsibility in the hands of an independent commission appears reasonable and in line with efforts in other states.  Commissions will be as imperfect as the human beings who inhabit them.  But something had to be done to bring greater fairness back to representation for all citizens as intended by our founding fathers.

Now to a couple misses that were just so puzzling.

First and foremost among these is the failure to outlaw handheld mobile phone calls while driving a motor vehicle.  For all of us who have suffered foolish distracted drivers while holding a mobile phone to their ear, this is the biggest no-brainer of the decade.  Handsfree, Bluetooth calls should be allowed but still can be distracting.  A kissing cousin to texting (already outlawed), the use of a mobile phone by drivers to do anything requiring use of a keypad (other than handsfree use of a mapping/directional application) should also be made illegal.

The second failure in my mind, certainly not a no-brainer but loaded with commonsense, was the failure to decriminalize the use of marijuana.  Authorizing recreational use may be a “bridge too far” at this point in Virginia, although there are many sound reasons to consider this in the near future.  But to create criminality in those who are not doing anything different than what is possible with alcoholic beverages defies logic.  Over crowded jails and prisons, providing informal schools of criminality for fresh inmates whose only crime was marijuana use, just exacerbates the troubles with the already overburdened criminal justice system.

Finally, a mention of disappointment in the retention of the Pease limitation1 on tax deductions for high earning taxpayers.  Eliminated in the new federal tax code, Virginia’s attempt at federal conformity conveniently failed to eliminate the Pease limitation.  Those who believe high earning families should pay taxes at a significantly higher rate will cheer this disparity with the federal tax code.  The charitable organizations who rely on large contributions from these same families may not.

1It works by reducing the value of a taxpayer’s itemized deductions by 3 percent for every dollar of taxable income above a certain threshold ($254,200 single; $305,050 married). The phase-out of the value of itemized deductions is capped at 80 percent of the total value of itemized deductions. Due to its structure, Pease is not really a limitation on itemized deductions, but rather a stealth surtax on high-income individuals.1 f

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