Editorial – Share state surplus with localities

Published 5:51 pm Friday, August 25, 2023

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Democrats and Republicans in a divided Richmond say they’ve finally negotiated a compromise on a state budget flush with billions in unexpected revenue.

The state’s general ledger account balance has ballooned to $29 billion, more than triple what it was four years ago. State law permits cash reserves of an amount equivalent to 15% of the general fund, and the state is on track to be at 18% by next summer.

Republicans wanted to use the surplus for tax cuts, while Democrats wanted more money for public education. The compromise, announced Friday after months of on-again, off-again negotiations, appears to be a mix of the two. Taxpayers will get small one-time rebates and a higher standard deduction, while schools will get some extra funding.

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If you have a strong feeling about one priority or the other, be sure to vote in this fall’s General Assembly elections, which will determine control of the House and Senate. Currently, Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate, while Republicans have a similarly narrow edge in the House of Delegates. 

If the GOP holds the House in November and flips the Senate, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin will have no trouble passing deeper, more permanent tax relief. If Democrats win one or both legislative chambers, expect budget negotiations in 2024 that will be every bit as tense as those just completed.

In that event, perhaps both parties could compromise by sending more money to local governments, which aren’t rolling in the dough like state government. 

We’ve always believed the best government is the government closest to the people – town and city councils and boards of supervisors. At the very least there’s more accountability at the local level, where elected officials have a more direct relationship with taxpayers and where there are fewer bureaucrats to waste or mismanage the tax dollars collected.

Local governing boards best understand the needs of the citizens they serve. Their primary method of taxation – real and personal property taxes – can be the most painful for citizens, especially during inflationary times like those in recent years. 

More state funding could take some pressure off property tax rates and help local governments fund essential services and capital projects. Schools could also benefit from the money, but with some accountability since the additional state money would flow through city councils and boards of supervisors, which appropriate school funding.