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Votes

Health Benefits, Schools, Taxes and Route One Safety on Peoples' Minds

They had a town hall meeting and the people came. The leaders spoke and the citizens listened. And then it was the citizens' turn to speak.

Last week's town hall meeting, sponsored by Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44) and Senator Linda "Toddy" Puller (D-36), was full of information and thought-provoking questions.

First order of business was for Amundson to present awards to the winners of her annual art contest, "What I like about living in the 44th District." Many entries were submitted and judges Kelly St. Clair, Jane Andrle Gillette and Gretchen Raber, spent an evening judging the 60 entries presented from Belle View Elementary, Fort Hunt Elementary, Groveton Elementary, Stratford Landing and Waynewood Elementary.

Winners were Ryan Carter, fourth-grader from Waynewood, for "Eagle on the Parkway;" Michael Littleton, fifth-grader from Groveton for "Woodrow Wilson Bridge;" Lucy Neer, sixth-grader from Fort Hunt, for "Gunston Hall;" and Steven Paul, sixth-grader from Fort Hunt, for "Grist Mill."

Each winner received a $100 savings bond donated by Don Beyer Volvo; Hollin Hall Shell; Power Video; and Village Turf. There were also 10 second-place winners as well as 10 third-place winners. All students who entered the contest will be recognized in a reception to be held at a later date.

LOCAL ELECTED OFFICIALS were recognized and then the floor was turned over to Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement. He spoke about the transportation issues facing the 2003 General Assembly. Clement first outlined the goals of the transportation department, sound business practices, agency, programmatic and individual accountability, and open, honest communication. He then spoke about some of the major accomplishments from 2002 which included introduction of realistic revenue projections for six-year program; prevention of $250 million cash flow crisis; the sale of $135 million in Commonwealth port improvement bonds; improvement of aviation security; and revision of cost estimation and project update processes; to name a few.

Clement listed several budget amendments for FY 2004 and then spoke about the priority transportation issues for 2003 — federal reauthorization; Dulles rail; VDOT reform and financial management; DMV service delivery reform; multimodal planning process; PPTA process and projects; clean air conformity; and requiring proof of citizenship for driversí licenses.

Clement got everybody's attention when he said that they would be reopening the DMV offices, some of which had been given reduced hours as part of a cost-cutting measure. Understanding the need to reduce the lines, he said that they need to change the way they do business. Although approximately 30 percent of the transactions can be done over the Internet, people are still not taking advantage of this time-saving process. He also said that automated kiosks (similar to bank ATM's) are inevitable.

When all was said and done, however, the subject on most people's minds was how to make Route One safer. Clement didn't waffle and said that there's not enough money to do everything that needs to be done.

Amundson said that that she has introduced legislation to increase penalties for drivers who don't stop for pedestrians. She also said that there would be public hearings in the spring to discuss a comprehensive plan for correcting the problem. "Unfortunately, we will not see all the needed changes until there is a predictable revenue stream," she said.

BILL MURRAY, deputy director of public policy for Governor Mark Warner, spoke about where the state's money was going, breaking it down into the major components: K-12 education; Medicaid; higher education; and state police and prisons.

He explained that since Virginia did better than average in the 90's with all the tech companies, that they are now feeling the downturn worse than ever. "State revenues are down and the governor has already made a 15 percent cut in most of the state's agencies," he said. Exempted were any agencies having to do with K-12 education and direct patient care. In fact, Warner has added $65 million to K-12 education, using rainy day funds which were established in the 90's.

Murray continued by saying that the top legislative packages for this year involve budget reform and VDOT reform and said that Puller and Amundson are both carrying important pieces of the governor's legislation.

He mentioned that due to this year's drought, planning was being done on water supply issues, none of which has been done for 30 years.

Going along with revenue cutting, Murray spoke about how the state is trying to streamline workforce programs, as well as downsizing and consolidating state boards and agencies.

A question was asked what effect the loss of revenue due to the cutting of the car tax was having on the economy. While the loss is significant, neither Murray nor Amundson and Puller thought that it would be reinstated anytime soon.

ALSO UNLIKELY to pass is an excise tax, especially on tobacco. With tobacco still a big crop in Virginia, local legislators said that it's unlikely that it will pass.

"The House is a very tax-averse group right now," said Amundson.

Not touched upon, but on many people's minds was the lack of healthcare and prescription drug benefits. Several people complained about being denied Medicaid and being turned away from services at the South County Government Center. There was also concern about the current mental health policies. Puller and Amundson said that they would deal with those issues individually.

Funding for schools was discussed. While Murray agreed that the funding formula is antiquated, he said that there's not one county who doesn't feel like they're getting enough.

"Formula fights are messy—all areas are aggrieved," said Murray.

If approved, a $1 billion school construction bond bill will provide some relief by giving extra money to each school division.