Virginia Statewide Ballot Issues, 2016

Seal of Virginia
Seal of Virginia

Article XII, Section 1, of the Constitution of Virginia establishes a process for amending the constitution. The state Senate or the House of Delegates proposes amendments and, after having been passed through both houses, they are then presented to the voters for approval. Once approved by the voters, the state constitution is amended as specified, and that change can only be reversed by repeating the amendment process.

Citizens of Virginia will be voting on two constitutional amendments in this year’s November election, each of which would change or add text to the Constitution of Virginia.

Worker Rights

The Code of Virginia includes a number of protections for workers, including a prohibition against employers denying employment to nonunion workers or compelling employee membership in labor unions, and restrictions against the establishment of abusive union monopolies. These restrictions, commonly (but incorrectly) called ‘Right to Work’ laws, are in-place in twenty-six states.

The Virginia General Assembly has proposed amending Article I of the Constitution of Virginia to include these provisions. By adding them to the state constitution, supporters believe that they will carry more weight than they do as a mere law, and will be more difficult to amend or repeal in the future.

Critics of these laws characterize them as anti-union, which is inaccurate at best. They do not outlaw unions, nor do they unduly restrict unions’ ability to bargain collectively with employers. They do, however, protect the right of every employee to decide for themselves what organizations they will join. With these laws in place, anybody may join a union if they wish, but nobody may be forced to do so as a condition of their employment.

Supporters, on the other hand, tend to overstate what these laws do. The term ‘Right to Work’ is itself a misnomer, as these laws do not define any such right. They are legally-defined protections for workers’ existing free assembly rights, and they force a decoupling of employment from union membership. This reduces unions’ ability to coerce people into joining, and somewhat limits their ability to force employers into damaging agreements, but still preserves unions’ right to exist and to negotiate on behalf of their members.

The question on the table in this referendum is not whether Virginia should adopt a ‘Right to Work’ law. We already have one, and it has been good for Virginia’s employees, our employers, and our state economy on the whole. The question on the table is whether this law should be elevated to constitutional status and thereby made more insulated against future amendment or repeal.

This is a transparently political proposal. Republicans in the General Assembly worry that the Democratic Party, which is hostile to free assembly rights, might obtain a legislative majority in the coming years. But despite the questionable motivations, the proposal itself is a good one. It is reasonable for the Constitution of Virginia to clearly define and protect employees’ free assembly rights, and to lay a solid economic groundwork upon which the state’s people and businesses can operate. I endorse a YES vote on Virginia’s worker rights amendment.

Property Tax Exemption

In order to exempt certain property from local property taxation, the Constitution of Virginia must be amended to permit that exemption, and then the Virginia General Assembly must pass legislation to enact it.

Many such exemption authorities have been added to the state constitution in the past, including four times in referendums since Off on a Tangent began making political endorsements. In 2006, voters permitted (by a 65-35 majority) exemption authority with regard to “conservation, redevelopment, or rehabilitation areas.” In 2011, voters permitted (by 76-24 and 82-16 majorities respectively) exemption authority for the benefit of the elderly and disabled, and created a new exemption for military veterans suffering from a permanent, total, service-related disability. And in 2014, voters permitted (by an 87-13 majority) exemption authority for surviving spouses of members of the armed forces killed in action.

This year, the General Assembly has proposed a new exemption authority for surviving spouses of any law enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, and emergency medical services personnel killed in the line of duty.

The fact that we keep having to consider these types of amendments points to a continuing structural problem with the Constitution of Virginia. State constitutions should provide a broad statement of governing principles and establish the structure of the state government. Day-to-day and year-to-year governance—like adding and removing tax exemptions—should be happening through the normal legislative process.

Rather than adding yet another one-off exemption authority to the state constitution, we should instead modify the constitution to allow the General Assembly to create these kinds of exemptions on their own, subject to the usual checks and balances between the legislative houses, the governor, and the courts. There is no reason it needs to be this difficult.

Regardless, the proposed exemption deserves our support. I endorse a YES vote on Virginia’s property tax amendment.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.