Critics say tax relief legislation would widen racial inequities
UPDATE (2:15 p.m. Feb. 14):
Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is asking lawmakers to pass a state budget that has a "greater focus on the issues of equity."
Northam met with a group of lawmakers Thursday to discuss his spending plan.
The Democratic governor also sent a letter to key members of the GOP-led General Assembly outlining his priorities. Top among them, Northam says, are increased funding for struggling schools and more spending to lower the number of evictions.
Northam has been trying to rebuild relationships with the black community after a racist photo surfaced in his medical school yearbook. Northam has said he's not in the picture, but admitted to wearing blackface at a dance contest.
He's faced widespread calls to resign, including from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Members of progressive groups are seeking to hold Gov. Ralph Northam to his promise to focus the remainder of his term on racial equity and to help reconcile Virginia’s long history of racial inequity.
That is why advocacy organizations said the
crafted by Virginia lawmakers — on the heels of a scandal over a racist picture in Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook — would hurt low-income minority groups if the governor signs it into law.
Northam has faced demands to resign since the yearbook photo surfaced on Feb. 1. The governor has said he does not plan to quit and will focus instead on improving opportunities for black Virginians.
Representatives of Progress Virginia, which has called for Northam’s resignation, said the tax plan “falls short of this professed new goal.”
Progress Virginia and other organizations made that point at a press conference this week to discuss the bills passed by the House and Senate to revise the 2018-2020 state budget. The governor has expressed support for the legislation.
“We call upon state lawmakers to seize this opportunity to strengthen these bills to make them so that they do not widen inequities in our state but take needed steps to address them,” said Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
Republicans who control the General Assembly have touted the budget bills as giving nearly $1 billion in tax relief to Virginia taxpayers. On Monday, the legislation passed 95-4 in the House and 35-5 in the Senate — large enough majorities to take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.
The legislation would provide tax rebates of $110 for individual filers and $220 for married couples. And it would raise the standard deduction by 50 percent, the first such change for individual filers since 1989. The legislation also would conform Virginia tax law to the newly revised federal tax law, ensuring that Virginians can file their state taxes without complications this May.
“I am proud of the hard work that has gone into crafting this bipartisan legislation that will put more money in the pockets of hard-working Virginians,” House Speaker Kirk Cox said. “This legislation represents the most significant tax relief package in the commonwealth in at least 15 years.”
However, the groups at Monday’s press conference said the budget bills would cut funding for programs that disproportionately affect minority communities.
For example, the legislation would cut $133 million in support to public schools and specifically for programs serving at-risk youth, according to James Fedderman, vice president of the Virginia Education Association.
“The greater the proportion of students of color a school division has, the more they stand to lose from the funding provisions,” Fedderman said. “Unless these budget provisions are corrected, many of the school divisions with the highest need will lose out.”
Funding to support the 2020 census would also be cut, according to Alexandria Bratton, program manager at the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit group that focuses on economic justice and other issues.
The national headcount, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years, determines the number of congressional seats each state gets and the amount of federal money allocated for public assistance and other programs.
The budget approved by the General Assembly last year included $1.5 million for efforts to encourage Virginians to participate in the census. The bills to revise the budget would eliminate that funding.
Welfare programs for low-income residents could be impacted if the census undercounts the population, Bratton said.
“A representative census is critical to advance racial equity in Virginia,” she said. “The decision to eliminate [census participation] funds demonstrates a concerning apathy on behalf of our elected leaders toward overcoming our history of racial discrimination to build a Virginia that works for all of us, no exceptions.”
Advocates urged state officials to revise the tax bills to address such issues.
“Our state lawmakers have said they want to tackle issues of racial inequity, and now is the time for them to roll up their sleeves and do so,” Cassidy said.