When voters go to the polls November 5, they'll have more than just the sales tax referendum to think about. Voters will be asked to decide on two Virginia constitutional issues and two statewide bond issues, as well.
"I am concerned with all of the attention that is being paid to the sales tax referendum, the statewide bond issues are going to get lost in the shuffle,” said Virginia Delegate Kris Amundson (D-44). “While reasonable people legitimately disagree about the referendum, I don’t know of anyone who opposes the bond issues. It is vitally important voters vote 'yes' on both of them and support the two constitutional questions as well.”
The first bond issue would provide more than $900 million in funding for capital projects at the state’s colleges and universities. George Mason University would receive more than $40 million and Northern Virginia Community College would also benefit.
“We have seriously neglected the needs of our colleges and universities,” said Virginia Senator Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer (D-36). “The last two governors are particularly responsible for this neglect. The state has the debt capacity and we will not have to raise taxes to pay any of the interest because rates are so low.
"If this bond issue does not pass, George Mason alone will have to reduce its staff by 140 professors. Our colleges and universities are highly rated nationally but we must keep pace with the investments other states are making or we will lose staff and we will not have the capacity to educate the increasing number of Virginia students who want to attend college.”
Virginia Delegate Brian Moran (D-46) agreed. “We had a cap on tuition for a very long time,” he said. “Only recently have we raised that cap. Fewer Virginia students have been accepted at our schools because the colleges and universities were in such need of the much higher out-of-state tuition. There is not going to be a better time to make this kind of investment.”
THE SECOND BOND ISSUE would provide $119 million in funding for the state’s parks. “We rank 50th in the percentage of our state budget that goes to maintain and protect our parks,” Ticer said. “We rank 49th in the amount of money per capita that we spend on them. And yet, out-of-state visitors to these parks brought us $140 million in revenue last year. Open space is not something that we can create more of. We must take the opportunities that we can to purchase and protect the limited resources that are available.”
The money will be used to enlarge some parks, purchase new land for entirely new parks and to renovate and build visitor centers and recreation facilities throughout the state park system. Funding will also be made available to increase the size of some of the state’s conservation areas.
“It is amazing that we have done such a good job maintaining these parks with so little money,” Moran said.
While most of the parks that will receive funds are not in Northern Virginia, Mason Neck Park will on the list. Lake Anna and Leesylvania parks will also receive much-needed capital funds if the bond issue passes.
THE FIRST constitutional amendment concerns cases in which a person is convicted of a felony but is later able to prove his actual innocence because of new scientific or DNA evidence that is discovered after his conviction. The new evidence shows that the person did not commit the felony and was wrongly convicted.
The amendment provides that the Supreme Court can consider claims of actual innocence presented by convicted felons in such cases and in such manner as may be provided by the General Assembly as a part of the Court’s original jurisdiction.
“This would allow the Virginia Supreme Court to hear these cases and that is something that is not available to these individuals now,” Moran said.
THE OTHER PROPOSED Constitutional amendment relates to the right of cities and counties to exempt certain types of property from taxes. Generally, the Constitution provides that all property shall be taxed and then provides how various types of property may be exempted from taxes. This amendment would change how certain types of property may be exempted from taxes.
Currently, the Constitution provides that the General Assembly may exempt property “used by its owner for religious, charitable, patriotic, historical, benevolent, cultural or public park and playground purposes.” The proposed amendment authorizes the local governing body to exempt such property by an ordinance and eliminates the need by action of the General Assembly.
“These are really no-brainers,” Ticer said. “I can’t imagine anyone is going to oppose either of them. I would add, however, that, with the current state of economic affairs, I would doubt that we would see a lot of local governing bodies choosing to exempt much property from taxes. This is the way in which these same governing bodies get most of their revenue.”
THE ALEXANDRIA CITY COUNCIL has passed resolutions supporting both of the bond issues. “I think it was very important for us to let the citizens of Alexandria know that their elected officials support these very important bond issues,” said Mayor Kerry J. Donley.
“All of us have a vital interest in seeing that our colleges and universities remain as highly ranked nationally as they are currently. Also, we must preserve open space and protect the natural resources that define the quality of life that Virginians expect.
"The state has no money to spend on capital improvements to the colleges and universities or to state parks. If these bond issues do not pass there will be no funding for much needed capital improvements.”