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Gas Taxes, Metro, Gay Marriage and Stalkers with Guns

Lawmakers Prep for Short Session in Richmond

Local lawmakers and county officials are putting together Arlington’s legislative package for the coming “short session” of the state assembly that begins Jan. 12.

The County Board met in a work session Dec. 7 with local state representatives to discuss manager Ron Carlee’s recommended legislative program and it will vote on whether to approve it Dec. 11. The program outlines the county’s agenda in Richmond, including what bills county official will support, what they will oppose and proposals the county will bring before the general assembly. Local lawmakers are also presenting the legislation they will introduce.

According to Carlee, one of the county’s top priorities this session is public transportation, a priority that could result in higher taxes.

“The transit needs of Northern Virginia, over and above those of the state, require additional, dedicated funding,” Carlee wrote in his Nov. 29 recommendation to the board. “To that end an increase in the current Northern Virginia 2 percent gas tax to 4 percent is a priority.”

Taxes remain at the forefront of Carlee’s memo when it comes to Arlington’s legislative proposals. His recommendation encourages the board to push for the renewal of the Transient Occupancy Tax Surcharge for Tourist Promotion, a 0.25 percent tax levied on top of the county’s 5 percent Transient Occupancy Tax. The tax, levied on hotel guests, carries a sunset provision that will otherwise cause it to expire Jan. 1. Revenue generated by the tax is used to promote the travel and tourism industry in the county.

Carlee also outlined a selection of six bills that, he said, require the board’s support, like a 2 to 4 percent increase in the state’s gasoline sales tax. The state’s Transportation Commission uses the surcharge from the tax to pay part of Arlington’s obligation to the Washington Metro Transit Authority. The surcharge alone paid an estimated $20.9 million of the county’s Metro obligation in 2003, according to Carlee.

“Metro was identified in a Brookings report recently as the only transit system in the country that doesn’t have at least something like 35 percent dedicated funding,” said County Board member Chris Zimmerman. “That means that for localities like Arlington, the cost of running the transit system competes with other parts of the budget — schools, health services, police. We have a funding crisis when it comes to Metro in the Washington area.”

Lost revenue that was once generated by the personal property tax on cars is a second element of Arlington’s legislative agenda. Lawmakers in Richmond put a cap on the amount of money the state will pay out to reimburse counties for that money, once an integral part of the county’s budget, causing the payments to fall short by an estimated $270 million in state’s 2006 appropriation of a promised $950 million.

A law permitting Northern Virginian jurisdictions to install automatic cameras at intersections for photographing speeding cars also needs the county’s support to pass. The county’s traffic worries also play a part in a bill aimed at restricting overnight parking on public streets from cars that come from registered outside Arlington.

In what could be a controversial recommendation during the coming session is Carlee’s proposed support for a repeal of the Affirmation of Marriage Act, a statewide ban on same sex marriages instituted in 2004. Carlee recommends that the county support legislation that would extend the state’s hate crime legislation to include crimes committed against gays and lesbians. Under the heading of civil rights initiatives, Carlee also suggests support for a statewide moratorium on the death penalty.

On tax policy, Carlee advocates a measure to streamline the state’s sales tax collection program to allow the state to collect on tax revenue from out of state vendors operating through catalogues and the Internet. The County Board should also support, Carlee writes, a tax incentive for developers working on energy efficient buildings and development.

As for what the county should monitor or oppose, Carlee recommends the county be mindful of proposals that would limit the ways municipalities fund transportation costs to the purchase of bonds. Limitations on local living wages and on the county’s zoning authority also make the list.

Talking taxes, Carlee warns against changes to the telecommunication taxes until they can be shaped to be “revenue neutral to localities”, meaning that they wouldn’t cost the county anything. He also suggests the county voice opposition to any proposed cap on real estate tax assessments or tax rates.

Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) will present to the board legislation he is sponsoring in the short session, which will last only until Feb. 27. In light of the long lines and hours of waiting voters faced during the Nov. presidential election, Ebbin said he will submit a bill that will lift restrictions on absentee voting. If passed, the law would allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without any reason other than their own personal preference to do so.

“It needs to be easier to participate in the democratic process,” he said.

Turning to gun control, a hotly contested issue throughout Virginia, Ebbin said he will put forth a bill that would prevent convicted stalkers from owning guns. Ebbin proposed similar legislation during last year’s session but it was defeated. He has since rewritten the proposal and said he is optimistic about its outcome. Federal laws regarding stalkers, he added, already prohibit them from carrying guns but the state needs to enact a similar law for the sake of adequate enforcement.

“Because it’s a federal law, I might have to call the ATF if I’m being stalked by someone with a gun,” he said. “I’d like to give Virginia’s police the power to handle those instances.”

To defend day laborers from exploitation, Ebbin is also proposing a bill to levy heavy penalties against companies that fail to pay them for a day’s work.

“I found eight laborers in this district recently who got fired when they shouldn’t have been,” he said, referring to a group of laborers working on the construction of a building in Rosslyn. “The checks bounced. The company says they paid them and ultimately they did.”

Among the other legislation Ebbin is putting before the assembly is a bill that will allow hunting on Sundays and another that will provide telephone calling cards for prison inmates trying to phone home.

“Collect calls from prisons are a profit center for the department of corrections but they cost an inmate’s family hundred of dollars,” Ebbin said.