Virginia legislators consider newspaper tax

VIRGINIA — State legislators will consider today a bill that would tax the distribution of publications in Virginia, which could threaten the solvency of smaller newspapers and magazines, say some media advocacy groups.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Leo Wardrup, (R-Virginia Beach), would impose a 1 cent tax upon “each newspaper, magazine, newsletter or other publication issued” issued in Virginia more often than once every three months. The bill, introduced earlier this month, will go before the House of Delegates’ finance committee this morning.

The bill has been met with opposition by some press groups, who say the tax could infringe newspapers’ First Amendment rights.

In its original form, the bill did not offer exemption for non-profit publications, such as college and high school newspapers, and such a tax would be crippling for many of them. But an amendment exempting such publications from the tax was planned, according to Wardrup’s staff.

Although the amendment has not yet been released to the public, independent student publications without formal non-profit status could still be subject to the tax unless exempted in the legislation.

Although most student newspapers are either non-profit or under their school’s non-profit banner, many smaller community papers around the state would not be able to handle the tax, opponents say. A daily newspaper with a circulation of 5,000 would be taxed more than $18,000 each year.

If the tax applied to Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, it would have to pay $16,000 annually — a sum that the Daily Collegiate could not afford, said Kelly Wolff, general manager of Virginia Tech’s non-profit student media oversight group.

Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, said a great concern of those opposing the bill is its effect on smaller newspapers.

“This would affect their ability to get newspapers added to the community,” she said.

But the bill is not meant to punish print media, said Bill Barnes, an administrative aide to Wardrup. Rather, it is intended to tax business across the board, he said.

“If you go into the 7-11, and you purchase a newspaper, there’s a tax on that. If you go and purchase a newspaper at a machine, there’s no tax on that,” Barnes said. “It’s felt that the newspapers should pay sales tax just like everyone else. … They’re bringing them into the rule, not the exception.”

But Stanley said she believes the bill unfairly targets print news, which must compete with other media, like television and the Internet, that are not facing a tax increase.

This is the fourth year the bill has been offered in the legislature, Stanley said, but this is the first time it has made it past one of the finance subcommittees.

Stanley said she has lobbied every member of the finance committee to vote against the bill, and she is confident that it will not be passed on favorably today, though she admitted one can never be sure.

“The problem with these committees is you never know who’s going to be in the room when this vote comes up.”

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer