Transportation Wins, Education Loses

Transportation Wins, Education Loses

House committee kills sales tax referendum for education.

<bt>Del. James H. Dillard II's (R-41st) pursuit of a 1/2-cent sales tax referendum for education received a setback Monday, as the House appropriations committee voted 15 to 10 to kill his referendum bill. The committee approved a similar bill submitted by Del. John A. Rollison (R-52nd) aimed at raising transportation money for Northern Virginia.

The lack of support for Dillard’s bill did not come as a great surprise to Del. Vincent F. Callahan, Jr. (R-34th), who chairs the House appropriations committee and voted in favor of the Dillard's bill.

“There’s not that cry for education around the state that there is in Northern Virginia,” Callahan said. “That’s what it came down to. Member after member said ‘we have no problem. Our schools are fine. We don’t need more money.’”

Callahan expected the House to pass Rollison’s bill without much debate. After that, he thought that the Senate would probably amend the bill to include an education component.

“Then it will come back to the House and we might run into the same problem that we did last year,” said Callahan, referring to the education/transportation sales tax referendum bill that the House failed to pass during the 2001 session.

In other words, another year could slip by without Northern Virginians being able to decide whether they could self-tax themselves to generate more education and transportation funding.

One group that lobbied in favor of both the transportation and education sales tax bills was the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. Chamber director Michael P. Carlin was on hand for the House finance committee’s Feb. 9 public hearing on the bills. Although that committee voted to send Dillard and Rollison’s bills back to appropriations, Carlin saw the emergence of the conflict that likely killed the education bill.

“I hadn’t thought far enough along on how the money was going to be spent and the different formulas that would come into play and how divisive that could be,” Carlin said. “There’s a consensus on a statewide approach, on a sales tax and on a statewide need. But there’s dissension on how to spend the dollars that are collected.”

Prior to the appropriations vote, delegates dickered on how money from the sales tax would be disbursed. Would the formula be based on the point of sale, school age population or the consumer index?

Figures provided by the appropriations committee showed that Northern Virginia would benefit more from a distribution formula based on the point of sale. [See graph].

“If half or more of the money that’s raised here is going somewhere else, I don’t think it will pass in a referendum,” said Carlin.

<mh>No New Funding

<bt>“Everywhere we turn for assistance for our school system, we basically get turned down,” Daniel Domenech, Fairfax County school superintendent. “Here is a case where it’s apparent that the state is broke, they don’t have any money and they can’t help us that way. They won’t even allow us to spend our own dollars on the fixing of our schools and renovating so many of our facilities.”

If the sales tax referendum for education had passed the General Assembly, and Gov. Mark Warner (D) had signed it, Domenech reported that it would’ve been a tremendous boon for the county.

“It would’ve allowed us to put forth a referendum that we were very confident would’ve been approved by the public,” Domenech said. “The cash flow for us would’ve been in excess of $50 million a year. That would’ve been a godsend, considering our facilities' needs.”

Under Fairfax County’s current bond structure, which generates $130 million annually for the school system, Domenech estimated that it would take 10 years to complete all of the necessary school renovations that the sales tax referendum would’ve helped to finance.

“We have a huge list of new projects and renovations,” Domenech said. “These parents in these communities are hardly willing to wait one year let alone 10.”

Although Domenech was disappointed by the appropriations committee’s decision, he has had indications from members of the Senate that a sales tax referendum for education might not be dead.

“Sen. (Richard L.) Saslaw (D-35th) has been firm on saying that no bill is going to pass the Senate unless it includes education,” Domenech said. “At this point, it may be our last hope.”