The shadow of Virginia’s budget cuts and their impact on Fairfax County loomed over the candidates for the 35th Delegate District and the 34th Senate District as they courted local federal retirees in the first-ever debate between the candidates this season. Tuesday’s debate, sponsored by the Vienna chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees (NARFE), showed that while the candidates agreed on improving the quality of life among the area’s retirees and elderly, their approaches often illustrated the split between the parties.
Candidates vying for the Senate’s 34th District, Democrat Ron Christian (D) and Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-35th), and for the House of Delegate’s 35th District, Rob McDowell (R) and Steve Shannon (D), appeared in front of the roughly 100 people attending the Oct. 7 debate at the Vienna Community Center. Candidates fielded questions from the audience on a variety of topics, from budgeting to senior citizens’ tax credits to assisted living.
“There’s still a lot more to read and a lot more to listen to,” explained Vienna resident Tom Buchanan, who came to hear the candidates’ stance on tax issues for senior citizens. He plans to read some more literature before making a final decision in November. “But this helped out a great deal.”
Christian and Devolites kicked off the first debate, answering questions on senior citizen tax credits, tobacco taxes and constitutional amendments for trust funds.
Asked if they supported the tax credit for senior citizens, Devolites said she supported indexing the credit so that it keeps up with inflation but cautioned that increasing the tax credit would be difficult because of the current budget situation.
“We just don’t have the dollars to increase,” Devolites said.
Christian said he wouldn’t vote against the tax credit but believed that conversation needed to continue on indexing.
On planning the state budget and ensuring that spending doesn’t exceed resources, Christian emphasized accountability. He added that upon arriving in office, Gov. Mark Warner (D) was saddled with tremendous debt.
“As we look at all the factors, we must take care of first responders and never leave those behind who would be behind,” Christian said.
Devolites countered that the spending excesses during the boom period of the 1990s were bipartisan decisions and that other states are facing similar budgeting problems. The increased spending also came after the early 1990s recession, Devolites said, so the spending was an attempt to reinstate some losses.
Regarding long-term care and the growing need for assisted living, Devolites said she would like to see companies more aggressively market long-term care insurance. She added that because of the budget crisis, program funding remains difficult.
“There just aren’t enough dollars for those programs unless you raise taxes,” Devolites said.
Christian responded that as a housing advocate for 30 years, he hoped that some shifting in the budget could be done so that programs for the elderly and disabled could continue.
“We must provide something,” Christian said. “I actually have some hope with this tax restructuring.”
When a question on cell-phone use in cars came up, Devolites brought up a recently reported national study by a transportation nonprofit that rated cell-phone use as near the bottom of the list for accident causes. Other distractions such as eating, putting on makeup or shaving, and changing the radio station rated higher. Devolites asked where the government could draw the line between cell-phone use and changing the radio station or eating.
“Privacy is an important issue,” Devolites said.
Christian replied there shouldn’t be a ban on cell-phone use but added that there is considerable misuse.
“We can’t stop everything, but we have to look at it when it comes our way,” Christian said.
Although most of the debate illustrated the differences between the two candidates, both agreed on raising the tobacco tax.
“This is a problem and an issue whose time has come,” said Christian on increasing the tobacco tax, adding that Maryland and the District have much higher taxes.
Devolites said she would support an increase if the revenue comes back to localities and is tied to health care and education.
The two also agreed on instituting constitutional amendments to preserve trust funds from being used for spending other than their designated purposes.
“I think it’s incredibly important,” Devolites said.
TAXES SHAPED the debate between state delegate candidates McDowell and Shannon. Both supported preserving the senior citizen tax credit and indexing it to keep up with inflation. However, they differed on tax restructuring and diversifying tax revenue.
On looking at explanations on the current budget crisis, McDowell said the state received the poorest rate for spending in a Pew study, partly because the tax system is outdated.
“We didn’t plan for the bust, and that’s why we’re in the crunch we’re in,” said McDowell, hearkening the 1990s.
Shannon replied that the problem lay with no diversification of the tax base.
“Had we a more diversified tax base at the local level, we wouldn’t have to be so dependent on the property tax,” Shannon said.
In diversifying that tax base, McDowell said he would like Virginia to move more toward a consumption tax, with exemptions for food and medicine. The consumption tax would be formulated so that localities get greater shares.
He added that he supports freezing assessments for seniors, truth in taxation requirements and remaining revenue-neutral.
Shannon countered that if a consumption tax is too broadly based, the areas outside of Northern Virginia would perceive it as a sales tax. He added that he would support an increase in the tobacco tax, as well as looking at revenue that wouldn't burden homeowners, such as raising the hotel tax.
Asked about what they would propose to cut to balance the budget, Shannon proposed a model that Warner had used, of consolidating purchases and narrowing down vendors in the executive branch. That model could be used for other government branches.
“The question is, how do we get a better bang for the buck,” Shannon said.
McDowell agreed with Shannon, adding that cuts were made to increases in the budget, not the actual budget itself. He considered himself more optimistic about the economy and said that when Virginia receives a surplus, the money should go toward capital expenditures for transportation and education.