Education and transportation needs for the Mount Vernon District may have just suffered a fatal set back at the hands of the Virginia House of Delegates.
That was the collective fear expressed by County Supervisors Gerry Hyland (Mt. Vernon) and Dana Kauffman (Lee) and backed up by Delegate Kris Amundson (D-44) after Monday night's vote in the House Appropriations Committee to reject one of the sales tax initiatives the three were hoping would pass.
The bill, introduced by Representative James Dillard II (R-41), Fairfax County, was rejected by a vote of 15 to 10. It would have provided a one half cent increase in the sales tax had the voters given their approval through a ballot referendum. However, another bill, dealing only with transportation, did make it through the same committee, according to Amundson.
"We're very disappointed that the committee voted against Dillard's bill," Hyland said. "There is a similar bill in the Senate and perhaps it will emerge. But, it would still have to go to the House."
Hyland explained that the main difference between the two types of education initiatives is that one bases the cash flow to the school districts on what is known as "point of purchase" while the other is tied to the number of students in a particular district. The "point of purchase" designation refers to where goods and services are purchased, thus generating sales tax revenue.
Both Hyland and Amundson saw a philosophical deadlock between the Speaker of the House and Senator Richard L. Saslaw (D-35) of Springfield. According to Amundson, "The Speaker is bound and determined to have the elements separated." Hyland noted, "Saslaw has threatened not to let anything come to a vote unless both issues are in the bill."
Kauffman said, "I would have hoped that one bill would cover both subjects so people don't have to pick which child they love more. But it looks like we will be getting two bills, if any at all."
He also noted, "80 percent of the voters in this district have children in schools and support the need for a referendum. I just know I don't want to see any more trailer classrooms. But all I've heard to date is what people are against, not what they're for."
Amundson said her preference is "to have both initiatives on the ballot and let the voters make the choice. I think that is their right."
As for transportation projects, Amundson saw nothing but dark clouds on the horizon. "We are expecting more bad news from the governor concerning VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation]. If everything stops due to lack of money and other VDOT problems what happens to all other projects. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Springfield Interchange projects may be it."
Amundson did express some optimism. "I think, slowly but surely, we are falling forward toward a solution to this mess," she said. "If it's not solved the Northern Virginia Roundtable is going to ask Governor Warner to call a special session of the General Assembly to address the sales tax issue."
BE CAREFUL FOR WHAT YOU ASK FOR
As pointed out by a recent panel at a forum in Alexandria, on the subject the question facing the legislators in Richmond, is not a simple one. That is highlighted by the fact that there are approximately a dozen bills in the hopper on the controversial subject.
On that panel were Robert O. Chase, President, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance; Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director, Coalition for Smarter Growth; Robert Griendling, a founding member of RENEW, a grassroots school advocacy group; and Peter J. Ferrara, Executive Director, American Civil Rights Union.
The primary points made by the speakers were:
. We have built all the mass transit that was planned but not even close to the roads planned.
. A highway construction shortfall of 1,500 lanes exists and Northern Virginia ranks second nationally in commuting time.
. There should be a one percent increase in the state income tax not in the sales tax because raising the latter won't raise the money needed.
. Education and transportation are not an either/or situation.
. We need to fix the way we look at land use. The money being expended on the Springfield Interchange alone would provide funds for 1500 new schools and allow every teacher to be paid a minimum of $50,000 per year.
. Fairfax County will need $1 billion over the next five years for school improvements. A sales tax increase will raise approximately $9 million in the same time frame.
. Raising taxes would be extremely counterproductive. We should allow general revenues to be used for transportation.
. Northern Virginia sends far more money to Richmond than it gets back. If it were to get its fair share back it would amount to $600 million.
The one element of consensus among the panelist was, "Be careful what you think you're supporting. The bills change very quickly." That admonition seems to be holding as the debate continues in Richmond.