The League of Women Voters held its annual legislative reception on Dec. 8, and heard predictions of cuts, cuts and more cuts.
"The only thing good that can be said about the upcoming session is that it’s only going to last 45 days,” said Delegate Karen Darner (D-49). “In an election year, it could have gone for 60 days so I guess we should be grateful for that.”
Darner and State Senator Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer (D-30) were the only members of the legislative delegation who attended. Delegate Brian Moran, who is now Chair of the Democratic Caucus was in Richmond at a meeting and Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35) did not participate. Delegate Marian Van Landingham is still in the hospital recuperating from surgery. She was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“Marian is doing quite well,” Ticer told the group. “She is going to undergo a mild form of chemo. It will be the continuous drip so there are not expected to be as many side effects. She will take this month to recover and will be able to go to Richmond in January.”
Ticer laid some of the blame for Virginia’s dire economic straits at the feet of the tax cuts. “When you have a surplus or get a bonus from your job, you don’t immediately take a trip around the world if your roof is leaking,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done; we took all of our surplus and took a trip around the world. Eliminating the car tax has been much more costly than we were told, for example. About the only good thing we did was to put some of that surplus into a clean water bill but now that we don’t have that surplus, I don’t even know what we are going to do about our water.”
HAVING SAID THAT, Ticer admitted that there is a lot of blame to go around. “The federal government is taking credit for all of these new programs and there is just no money for them,” she said. “The No Child Left Behind program is a good example. That program is requiring that school personnel do a lot more paper work and yet there is no funding for that program.”
Ticer will be the patron on no more than five or six bills, as opposed to 30 that she introduced last year. “It is bleak,” she said. “Even little bills that we sometimes introduce to make a policy statement about just how bad things are aren’t going to go anywhere this year.”
For the most part, Darner agreed. “One of the good things that the governor can do is make appointments to boards and commissions,” she said. “He has some 2,500 to 3,000 appointments and those are staggered terms. Anyone who is interested in serving on one of those should go to the library and look in the book of boards and commissions where there is a synopsis of each and send a resume or letter of interest to a member of the legislative delegation. That way, we can have those on file when the clerk calls and asks us for recommendations. These appointments can make a difference.”
IN LOOKING AT possible ways to increase revenue, Darner mentioned increasing the cigarette tax. “This is a logical place to look for revenue except that we have not been able to get any support from members who represent the tobacco industry and tobacco farmers. What we have to do is continue to work with tobacco farmers to convince them that tobacco just isn’t the kind of cash cow that it has been in the past and help them find something else that can be,” she said. “There has been a lot of discussion around this tax because Virginia has the lowest cigarette tax in the country at two and a half cents per pack. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Darner works in the Arlington County public school system as a speech therapist. “We have been told that basic K—12 education is not going to be touched,” she said. “That, of course, doesn’t include the categorical programs, so we will have to wait and see what happens. We have the JLARC (Joint Legislative Audit Report) that says we are under spending tremendously and we are way behind in school construction spending but, again, we will have to see.”
MORAN, AS CHAIR of the party caucus, will sponsor some of the governor’s bills. “I am very interested in the VDOT reform bill,” he said. “Also, there are some budget bills that I am going to work on. There is one that says any transportation project of over $100 million must have identified funding before work begins. That will take care of issues such as the Mixing Bowl where funds will have to be identified before the project begins,” he said.
He is also going to sponsor some local bills. “Some police officers have come to me and asked if we could enact legislation that would allow them to use the HOV lanes to get to work if they don’t live in the jurisdiction where they work,” he said. “I’m going to carry that. I’m also going to carry a bill for the Commonwealth attorneys that would leave the time under which those who are charged with capital murder can be kept in institutions while we attempt to restore them to competency. Right now, the limit is five years under the criminal statute and that seems arbitrary.”
Ticer is concerned about a piece of legislation that would cap the real estate tax that localities can assess. “Once again, we are taking away local sources of revenue and not replacing them,” she said.
Alexandria Councilman David Speck agreed. “Anyone who would introduce such legislation has obviously been reading his press clippings,” Speck said. “These people were elected on a no tax platform but they clearly have no understanding of what it takes to run a government.”
Moran isn’t certain that the legislation will pass. “Once again, we are interfering in something that is none of our business,” he said. “Whether it will pass or not is hard to say.”
Governor Mark Warner will present his budget to the legislature on Dec. 20. Public hearings will be held around the state in January.