After several hectic days filled with long meetings, Del. James Almand (D-47) finally took a deep breath and relaxed last week. Going into the halfway point of the General Assembly session, Almand expected to see passage of 16 of the bills he patroned. “I’ve been busy, and it’s turned out pretty well,” he said.
Tuesday, Feb. 4 marked the “crossover” day for the Assembly: The last day for the House and Senate to vote on their own bills before having to hear the legislation approved by the other house. As they predicted at the start of the session, the bills affecting quality of life in Arlington met mixed success.
Almand’s two main initiatives to increase county revenues failed, but he secured passage of other bills designed to improve public safety and encourage local businesses.
One bill, requiring developers to install emergency communication equipment in all new buildings, passed unanimously, thanks in part to the support of police and firefighters. “The public safety community really got behind this bill,” said Almand.
“Even the building community recognizes the importance of it,” he said. “If you do it while you’re constructing the building, then it’s a manageable cost.”
Almand also sponsored one of the few tax-related bills to gain support in the House. Almand’s proposal to tax foreign-source income passed unanimously on Monday. All of Virginia’s neighboring states already tax such income. The tax would not hurt residents, Almand said, but would encourage people to invest their money in Virginia, or the U.S., rather than overseas.
Almand estimates the bill will have a $6-8 million positive impact on Virginia’s finances if it is approved by the Senate.
VIRGINIA’S CIGARETTE TAX was a popular but unsuccessful target for increasing revenue. Almand was one of several delegates to submit bills calling for an increase in the cigarette tax, which would have allowed Fairfax and Arlington counties to increase their cigarette tax to 30 cents per pack.
His bill was defeated in committee by a vote of 20-1, with Almand himself the lone holdout. It wasn’t a surprise, Almand said, but he hasn’t given up hope for future increases. The large number of bills submitted this year dealing with cigarette taxes reflect a growing interest in the legislature, he said.
Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31) had two bills dealing with the cigarette tax that were defeated. She too, said she never expected to get support in Richmond for the proposals.
For Del. Karen Darner (D-49), the defeat of the cigarette tax bills was part of a larger problem in the legislature. “They were determined that Phillip Morris was going to win and it wasn’t even necessary to look for another source of revenue,” she said.
Del. Bob Brink (D-48) said even with major budget problems in the state government, many in the General Assembly have made campaign promises this year not to raise taxes. “The majority refuses to consider anything on the revenue side of the ledger,” he said. “That means we’re in a zero sum game.”
DARNER AGREED that the Republican majority remains closed-minded about a number of proposals. Her bill to lower the food tax while increasing cigarette taxes should have at least been considered, she said, because of its balance of increases with cuts, but “they just saw the one part.”
Brink said it was still too early to assess the strength of budget proposals, since they will undoubtedly go through significant revisions in the second-half of the session. One thing is certain, he said. “Core programs, that should be our priorities, are not going to be able to function as well as they should.”
Even reforming governmental operations has proved difficult in light of the budget crisis. Brink sponsored a bill that would have required random checks of campaign finance information for state elections. The measure was defeated in committee by a vote of 12 to 8.
The main objection, Brink said, was that it would have meant more expenditure for the state Board of Elections. “I was disappointed that didn’t go through,” Brink said. “I think that [extra expenditure] is the price you pay for a system that people can have confidence in.”
BRINK USED political tactics to combat a law passed last year that requires public schools to post the national motto, “In God We Trust.” Arlington County School Board criticized the law in its legislative agenda for this year and asked that the General Assembly make no further requirements.
Instead of pushing for repeal of that law, though, Brink instead added on to it. The House voted in favor of his bill that would require schools to post the Bill of Rights in addition to the national motto.
“It was my thinking that if we were going to require posting of documents that contribute to children’s civic education that there was nothing better than the core principals of the Constitution of the United States,” he said.
In another measure affecting Arlington schools, Darner sponsored a bill that would have given undocumented immigrants the right to in-state tuition at Virginia colleges and universities if they met certain criteria. The school board formally supported proposals like Darner’s. General Assembly members were unlikely to support as aggressive a proposal though, so the House education committee sent a weaker bill, sponsored by Del. Thelma Drake (R-87), to the floor. Delegates voted 88-10 in favor of the bill, which will allow undocumented students to continue attending Virginia schools but will keep them paying out-of-state tuition. All three Arlington delegates voted against the bill.