"For better or worse, this session is going to be all about money,” said state Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44th) as she looked forward to the 2003 session of the Virginia General Assembly. “Mostly for worse.”
Gov. Mark Warner (D) has made the cuts that he can, and now it’s up to legislators. Most bills that have any chance of passing are going to have to include cost-cutting measures, according to Amundson.
“I want to look at changing the formula for the way we fund school districts around the state,” she said. “One of the things that frosted my cake the most last year was to see a school district like Fairfax, which had an enormously growing student population, nonetheless lose $46 million in state aid. At the same time, school divisions, school districts, that lost student population, because of the way the formula is figured, had an increase in state aid. My budget amendment will say two things: If you lose student population, while we may be very sorry, we aren’t going to give you additional money. That’s the one that everybody thinks will pass because it saves money.
“The companion to that, however, is to say that if you grow in student population, you can’t receive less in basic aid. You may not get all that your increase in student population says that you should, but they can’t cut you. There are a number of school districts that will support me on that like Loudoun and Prince William, the fastest growing ones, so we’ll see,” she said.
AMUNDSON WILL ALSO try, along with other colleagues, to address some of the school construction issues. “Our school buildings are aging, and many of them are overcrowded,” she said. “Even with our monetary difficulties, we must find a way to begin to address some of these critical needs.”
Amundson spent 10 years on the Fairfax County School Board before being elected to the General Assembly. Her daughter graduated from West Potomac High School in 1998 and from Princeton in June of this year. “I do think that we are going to have to put funding for K—12 on the table for cuts,” she said. “While I hope that there won’t be cuts in basic state aid, I think there will probably be cuts in categorical programs such as English-as-a-Second-Language [ESL] programs,” she said. “This will affect school districts such as Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax, that all have growing ESL student populations.
“We met with the Fairfax Education Association, and I told them that my goal was to make sure that the cuts in funding for education are not fatal. That’s very sad, but it’s the best that we can hope for in this climate.”
Parents appreciate Amundson’s support. “I have three children in public school in Fairfax County,” said Sarah Johnson. “I understand that there are probably going to be budget cuts this year. Del. Amundson has always looked out for our schools, and I am glad to know that she will continue to do so.”
IN ADDITION TO EDUCATION, Amundson says she will propose legisl in domestic violence issues.
“We have had a series of sexual assaults in the Mount Vernon area where the perpetrator has posed as a police officer,” she said. “I am going to introduce legislation that would increase the penalty for such a crime when committed by someone posing as a law-enforcement official.”
Confidentiality for victims of domestic violence who have moved away from their abusers is another priority. “Virginia has done a few things in this area, but not enough,” she said. “I am looking at ways that we could protect these victims.”
Alexandria mayor Kerry J. Donley has proposed increasing the region’s gas tax by 2 percent to help defray some mass transit costs. Amundson does not think this will pass. “My sense of it is that no move to increase taxes is going to get out of the General Assembly,” she said. “I think that the lesson that legislators learned, whether it was the lesson that voters intended or not, was – no taxes of any sort. I just don’t see any increase in any tax, not even on cigarettes.”
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY is likely to see a number of bills to increase the tobacco tax. Some would use that additional money to fund Community Service Board programs that have been cut, and at least one bill would use that money to fund school construction projects. “While I think that an increase in the tobacco tax is the one that is the most likely to pass, I just can’t even get to 51 votes on that in the House,” she said. “First, you have at least 30 members of the Republican caucus who are just adamantly opposed to any tax increase. Then, you have another 15 who represent tobacco-growing districts. And finally, what puts this completely out of reach is that you lose the Richmond delegates because Philip Morris is the largest employer in Richmond. All of this before you even start discussing the merits of the legislation. I just don’t see it happening.”
Amundson believes that, with no additional revenue, there will also be cuts in Medicaid and some cuts around the edges of public safety programs. “You will not see any cuts in police officers and firefighters on the streets,” she said. “In this time of uncertainty, that simply will not happen. The cuts in public safety programs will be strictly administrative.”