In 1950, Virginia was a rural state with a rural tax base. Today, Virginia is an urban state, still fed by a rural tax base. Real estate taxes formed the basis of local government revenues then, and local governments, counties especially, rely overwhelmingly on the property tax to fund needed services. Ninety percent of Fairfax County’s authority to collect revenue is either capped or controlled by the Virginia General Assembly.
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, so named for John Forest Dillon, an Iowa judge who served in the 1860s. The Dillon Rule narrowly defines the power of local governments; if there is any reasonable doubt about whether a power has been conferred on a local government, then that power has not been conferred. Although many states have adopted “home rule” provisions that permit localities to undertake many governmental functions, Virginia has not. Maryland local governments may exercise all powers except those expressly restricted by their state legislature. Virginia counties may exercise no powers except for those expressly permitted, through enabling legislation, by the General Assembly. Fairfax County cannot even raise its own hotel tax without legislative action. When Fairfax asked for permission to increase the hotel tax by two percent, from a meager two percent to four percent, the General Assembly finally concurred, but restricted the spending of the extra two percent to tourism-related activities only.
Revenue diversification options are extremely limited, which makes the opportunity to vote on a meals tax on November 8 more important than ever. A four percent meals tax in Fairfax County is anticipated to raise nearly $100 million a year for local services when fully implemented, but the General Assembly requires that counties wishing to impose a meals tax must submit the question to the voters in a referendum. A county referendum in 1992 failed, but the discussion about revenue diversification has been almost constant since then. This spring, the Board of Supervisors petitioned the Circuit Court for permission to put a meals tax question on the ballot, and also determined that, if the meals tax is approved, 70 percent of the net revenues would help fund schools, and the other 30 percent would be used for other services, including real estate tax relief. That split would be codified in an ordinance adopted by the Board next year.
Revenues from the meals tax would supplement, not supplant, the annual school transfer in the county’s budget process. The School Board has identified teacher salaries as a priority for any new revenue. A mid-career teacher could go to Arlington County and immediately earn $20,000 a year more in Arlington, according to school figures. Keeping experienced teachers, and paying them more competitively, will help ensure that Fairfax County’s excellent school system continues to prepare our students, at all levels, for success.
A “yes” vote for the meals tax demonstrates support for our schools and the quality of life we expect and enjoy in Fairfax County. Vote on November 8.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.