As the tax policy debate continues to dominate Virginia’s 2019 legislative session, House Republicans are unifying behind tax relief legislation offered by Delegate Tim Hugo (R-Clifton), aimed at raising the standard deduction for lower and middle-income filers.

Hugo’s bill, introduced as HB2529, would allow Virginia taxpayers to choose whether they claim the standard deduction or itemize on their state taxes, regardless of how they file federally. Under current law, taxpayers who claim the standard deduction federally must also do so on their state return.

The measure also raises the standard deduction from $3000 to $4000 for individuals, and from $6000 to $8000 for married couples, in step with increases in the federal standard deduction passed in the GOP’s 2017 tax reform package.

So far this session, several Republicans have introduced legislation aimed at offering tax relief and blocking a $1.2 billion tax increase supported by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam.

With today’s announcement, Republicans have come together behind Hugo’s bill, with the full approval of party leadership.

“I am proud of our team for working together to develop a commonsense approach to protect middle class taxpayers from the hidden tax increase proposed by Governor Northam,” said Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights).”By adding these co-patrons we are sending a message that Republicans are unified around a piece of legislation that stands in stark contrast to the ideas and proposals being presented by the Democrats.”

Republican leaders have made holding the line on taxes their top priority of the session.

Two weeks ago, Speaker Cox said his caucus would take up tax relief and conformity measures as a priority early in the session, noting that work could not continue on the budget until debate on the Commonwealth’s revenue has concluded.

Last year, Governor Northam began planning his 2019 budget amendments assuming the $1.2 billion tax hike was in effect, using it as the basis for funding an additional $2.2 billion in state spending, $1.6 billion of which is budgeted for after he leaves office.

Under Northam’s proposal, 600,000 middle class taxpayers would pay more to Richmond every year. Under the Republican tax plan, those 600,000 would be protected, while 2.7 million low and middle income filers would see tax relief.

Republicans have said they aren’t interested in the governor’s plan.

“To be very clear, the governor’s proposal to increase taxes on hard-working Virginians is dead on arrival,” remarked GOP Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), during proceedings on the House floor on Monday.

“We are not going to participate in that,” he said. “We are not going to discuss that. That is a non-starter for this caucus, and we are not going to go along with it, and I just wanted to lay down that marker.”

The measure’s patron, Tim Hugo, who serves as caucus chair for the House GOP, said he looked forward to working with his colleagues in offering a tax relief package, which he said, would still leave ample funding available for core government services.

“I welcome my fellow delegates as co-patrons to this important legislation as we show that we stand united against increasing taxes on middle class families,” said Hugo, the bill’s patron. “Even after providing our hard-working teachers, first responders, and other blue-collar workers with tax relief, the state will still have more money for education, transportation and other key services than it did last year.”

“Once again, our plan says ‘no’ to a tax hike on the middle class.”

Hugo was joined by Delegate Dickie Bell (R-Staunton), who had introduced his own bill, but ultimately chose to join as a co-patron on Hugo’s legislation in what Republicans said was a unified front against the governor’s tax increase.

“The people of Virginia deserve to keep as much of their hard earned money in their pockets as possible,” said Bell. “This plan will return money to hard working taxpayers while Governor Northam’s plan forces families to pay hundreds of dollars in higher taxes and uses that money to drastically increase government spending.”

Joining in the announcement was Delegate Chris Peace (R-Hanover), who also filed legislation of his own before joining Hugo as a co-patron.

“The most important thing when we talk tax policy is ensuring the Trump Tax Cuts are able to be fully implemented in Virginia,” said Peace. “I look forward to working in a unified manner to give tax dollars back to the people of Virginia and allow them to decide how best to spend their money, not the Government.”

“People I spoke with on the campaign trail consistently shared with me how tired they are of higher taxes to fund runaway Government spending,” added Delegate Joe McNamara (R-Roanoke), who also introduced legislation before joining with his House colleagues. “This plan stands in clear contrast to Governor Northam’s $1.2 billion tax hike and $2.2 billion spending plan.”

At Cox’s direction, the House will consider Hugo’s bill as a high-priority item early in the legislative session, which is scheduled to last through mid-February.

While Republican lawmakers are unified behind their plan, Democrats remain divided, as their fractured caucus appears unable to coalesce around a single approach.

Some Democrats, like Delegate Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), have agreed with GOP-led calls to allow Virginia filers to itemize on their state return without regard for whether they itemize federally. Others, like Lee Carter (D-Manassas), have said the governor’s tax hike does not raise enough revenue.

The task of unifying the House Democratic front will fall to incoming minority leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who took the reins of caucus leadership from David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) on January 1st.

In the meantime, the tax policy debate is set to dominate ongoing discussions, as lawmakers work on amending the Commonwealth’s biennial budget during this year’s short session.

For now though, one thing is certain: if Republicans get their way, 600,000 middle class taxpayers will be protected against Governor Northam’s tax hike, while 2.7 million will see some relief, under the terms of Hugo’s legislation.