To familiarize area residents with the upcoming sales-tax referendum to raise money for transportation, Sen. Bill Mims (R-33rd) and Peter Ferrara, president of the Virginia Club for Growth, debated the issue, Oct. 16, at Westfield High.
Speaking as a citizen, father, commuter and taxpayer, Mims said he's usually anti-tax, but he's for this one because he's passionate about transportation.
Most state road funds, he said, aren't allocated based upon region, but upon need. The problem is that "we have needs that simply exceed the funds that are available. We need the funding we [already] get from the state and this additional funding for our regional [transportation] priority projects."
The proposal is to raise the sales tax a half cent, from 4 1/2 to 5 cents, but Ferrara said it's really an 11-percent hike since 5 percent is 11 percent more than 4 1/2 percent. And he said the increase has no end in sight.
"Moreover, this increase would come on top of recent, annual, double-digit increases in property taxes [here]," he said. "What about all the taxes we are already paying? Why can't those taxes be used for roads and highways?"
Instead, suggested Ferrara, the state should just modestly increase its spending so that, when the economy improves, the money saved by doing so could be used for road-building. He also said the tax would hurt seniors and low- to moderate-income people the most because most of their income is spent on basics, and those items would be taxed.
Furthermore, he said, "There's no guarantee the money will be spent of transportation projects in Northern Virginia. The legislature still has ultimate control over what roads are built, [and] the statute that people are voting on can be amended at any time." With all the new development enticing residents to settle here, he said, the roads will continue to be congested. "This is a con game and a scam because you're going to end up paying more taxes," he said.
But Mims said it's not so: "The road projects are in areas already zoned for residential development, and there's an obligation to provide the services." He also emphasized that 100 percent of the tax-hike revenue would stay in this region and could only be used for transportation. And the spending decisions would be made by Northern Virginians — the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority — not the state's Commonwealth Transportation Board.
Mims said this would not be an excessive tax — only 13 cents a person, per day — and food and prescription and nonprescription drugs would be exempt. He said priority transportation projects would get an immediate infusion of funds and, while the tax hike won't solve all the traffic problems, it will ease the crisis. And he said it would have a positive impact on both the economy and people's quality of life, not having to be tangled in gridlock.
If transportation is such a priority, said Ferrara, Virginia should "spend more of our tax money on it." Mims said half the state has inadequate transportation funding, but previous solutions posed have fallen short. The tax referendum, he said, is "the best [proposal] we have, at this time."
Virginia Run's Ray Gustave asked, "With VDOT's wasteful spending, how could you ask me to raise my taxes [for transportation]?" Replied Mims: "We have to get more control over our transportation destiny. A Northern Virginia Transportation Authority might be a long-term solution."
Lu Ann McNabb of Braddock Downs asked what will happen to education funds if the referendum passes. Mims told her that 29 percent of the 35-percent increase in state spending, the past four years, went to education: "The legislature said transportation will not compete with education dollars, so we're left with this as the only source of increased transportation funding."
Ferrara repeated that Virginia must slow its spending hikes, but Mims said even if that happened, "the state wouldn't be able to commit all the savings to transportation — there are other competing needs."