|Facing the audience, from the left: Sen. Marsden, Del. Kory, and Sen. Saslaw|
With the Virginia legislative term nearing its end, lawmakers still haven’t approved a badly needed transportation funding plan or acted on other crucial issues. But they have wasted time on issues that have become fodder for the late-night comics. Case in point: The House of Delegates debated a bill to study whether Virginia should adopt an alternative currency in case there’s a major breakdown of the Federal Reserve system.
Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35th District) said a controversial stealth redistricting plan pushed by the Republicans is “dead for now.” On Martin Luther King Day, when Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh, a prominent civil rights leader, was at President Obama’s inauguration, members of the GOP tried to push through a controversial plan to gerrymander the state in their favor. Speaker of the House Bill Howell (R) later killed the measure.
The big issue for Northern Virginia this term is the need to increase transportation funding, as the state is running out of money for road construction and maintenance.
The starting point for the discussion in the legislature was the transportation plan proposed by Gov. Robert McDonnell, which called for repealing the gas tax, raising the state sales tax, raising various fees, and shifting $50 million this year from other areas like education and social services.
Saslaw told the audience repealing the gas tax is a bad idea because about 28 percent of it is paid by non-Virginians, and “you’re giving all the out-of-state people a free ride.”
Shifting money from education to pay for schools is not a good solution, either. “We can’t adequately fund public education now,” Saslaw said. Virginia is 37th in the nation in public school funding, 47th in higher education, and 48th in Medicaid reimbursement.
The governor’s transportation bill died on the Senate floor, and efforts by Republicans to amend it failed, he said. “The House voted it out simply to get some document moving in the system,” he said, although even House Republicans opposed repealing the gas tax.
Increasing the gas tax would be a better option, he said, noting that a 10 cent increase in the gas tax would generate $400-$450 million a year for transportation. The gas tax is currently frozen at 17 and a half cents a gallon.
Saslaw, who said he used to own “eight or nine gas stations” and still has one in Chantilly, said his proposal to raise the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon wouldn’t have a huge impact on prices. North Carolina’s gas tax is 22 cents higher than Virginia’s and the average price of their gas is only 2 or 3 cents higher in the summer and 7 or 8 cents higher in winter, he said.
Saslaw also proposes generating raising the sales tax by 1 cent, although he doesn’t think that will pass. That plan would provide an additional $540 million a year, with half of those funds for transportation and the other half for education.
If something isn’t done to relieve transportation congestion in Northern Virginia, businesses will start to leave the area, warned Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37th District).
Marsden offered an explanation of why residents of southern Virginia prefer raising the sales tax rather than increased gas taxes: In the 1950s and 60s, Martinsville and Danville were the center of the state’s economic vitality, with people earning solid middle-class wages in the area’s textile, tobacco, furniture, and agricultural industries. When those companies left, unemployment rates soared as high as 20 percent.
Some of those folks drive an hour to get to jobs 40 miles away, while Northern Virginia residents typically spend an hour commuting just 12 miles. They see having no gas tax “as free money,” Marsden said, while they perceive a sales tax as something they can control.
“Our regional differences are now reflected in our political differences,” Marsden said, and that will likely be exacerbated in the next election. “We’ve got to find a uniting force, and transportation has to be a part of that. This is a pivotal year in Virginia. It we don’t get this transportation issue done now, the odds go down dramatically in the coming years.”
“We will need to compromise, but I’m not going to eviscerate school funding to pay for transportation,” Marsden said.“Grover Norquist does not run America,” he said, referring to the anti-tax advocate who has gotten many lawmakers to sign pledges to oppose any tax increases.
Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District) said she voted against McDonnell’s transportation bill because it didn’t raise the gas tax and took money out of the general fund. “The mood in the House of Delegates is “extremely partisan, very negative and getting bitter,” she said. “That prevents us from working together.”
“This governor is really doing some unpleasant and even some slightly crazy things,” Kory said. She was referring to McDonnell’s press conference with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, where he called the Louisiana education system a model for Virginia.
In addition to cutting education funding, McDonnell has put forward a plan for the state to take over schools that have been identified as “persistently failing.” The proposal calls for a new statewide school board appointed by the governor to decide which schools are failing, which schools to take over, how they should be fixed, and how long they should be under state control.
The new board could relocate a school anywhere it wants, totally remove the school from parents and taxpayers, and fire all the teachers, she said. Meanwhile, the state funding and local tax money for that school would be diverted to the takeover board. According to Kory, there aren’t any schools in Fairfax County in danger of being labeled persistently failing, but the criteria could change.
Amendments proposed by Kory to require public hearings and negotiations with the local school board failed to pass. “I think it’s unconstitutional,” she said. “It goes around elected school boards. It probably won’t pass but it will open door to the loss of local control.”
According to Saslaw, lawmakers know this measure would be unconstitutional so they also proposed a constitutional amendment. It was withdrawn on the Senate floor, though because there weren’t enough votes.
When asked what’s motivating the governor to push for state takeovers, Kory said, it’s all about getting more charter school. “Some charter schools have been very successful, but there’s been a boatload of them that haven’t been,” Saslaw said. “We have a pretty good school system. If it ain’t broke, why fix it.”
Kory said it’s important to distinguish between charters in public school districts that are endorsed by the local school board and those run by private companies with no accountability to the local board. (Kory is on the board of the Fairfax Leadership Academy, a charter school proposed for Mason District.)
Another controversial issue on the agenda is Medicaid funding. When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, it said the requirement for states to expand Medicaid coverage should be voluntary, not mandatory. If Virginia participates, an additional 300,000 people would get health coverage with minimal state funding.
If Virginia doesn’t participate, it would lose an opportunity for some $2 billion in federal funding, Saslaw said. “People are going to get health care. They will just show up at the emergency room, and then the cost to care for them will be double or triple. We will pay any way.”
When asked about efforts to curb gun violence, Marsden said he proposed bills to hold gun owners liable if their guns were used in crimes and not properly secured. That measure didn’t get anywhere, and neither did proposals to close the gun show loophole (which doesn’t require background checks for private sales) and make it mandatory to report stolen guns.
A candidate for lieutenant governor, Sen. Ralph Northam, a Democrat representing the Norfolk area, was in the audience. “He has been the voice of women’s reproductive rights,” said Kory. “We need him to have a bigger voice next year.”