Clearing up an ambiguity

Published 10:09 pm Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved — by a margin of 82 percent in favor to 18 percent opposed — a constitutional amendment providing that certain disabled veterans should be exempted from paying real estate taxes on their homes, they sent a clear message that they wanted to honor those who had sacrificed so much in order to guarantee their neighbors’ freedom.

As with so many things related to the law, however, the issue turned out not to be as clear as it seemed to the average Virginia voter.

The ballot question asked, “Shall the Constitution be amended to require the General Assembly to provide a real property tax exemption for the principal residence of a veteran, or his or her surviving spouse, if the veteran has a 100 percent service-connected, permanent, and total disability?”

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For most people, the purpose of the amendment was obvious: Veterans whose injuries were extensive enough to preclude them from working should not have to worry about a municipal government taking their homes because of their inability to earn money to pay real estate taxes.

But there was some ambiguity between the layman’s definition of “total disability” and the one used by the Veterans’ Administration. Under VA rules, a veteran with a partial disability that prevents him or her from being able to earn a living still gets a “total disability rating.”

The ambiguity left room for some localities to interpret the amendment one way, giving broader tax exemptions than others who followed a stricter interpretation of the language. Considering the uncertainty of the situation, some state lawmakers called for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to issue an opinion that localities could use for guidance on the issue.

Cuccinelli’s opinion, issued on Monday, wisely interpreted the language of the amendment — and the intent of the voters — in the broadest and most generous terms. “While the laws may not be perfect, it is paramount that our veterans understand the statutes that apply to them,” he said in a press release announcing his non-binding opinion. “It is also critically important that they receive the tax exemptions they are entitled to under the law.”

It is equally important that the intentions of the vast majority of Virginia voters are served. It seems likely that those who voted in favor of the exemption did so with the understanding that they would be easing the suffering of veterans with complete disabilities, not creating a subclass of disabled vets unable to access the benefit because of a mere technicality.

Disabled veterans throughout the state — and the Virginians who supported them in November’s vote — can breathe a little easier now, knowing they’ve got Virginia’s Attorney General on their side, too.