Another year, another general assembly. Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44) and Senator Linda "Toddy" Puller (D-36) are returning to Richmond and are ready to get back to work. Before they left, they shared their views on what they hope to accomplish during this term.
"For the past two years, we have dealt with the most significant economic crisis in modern Virginia history," said Amundson. "We have cut $6 billion from our budget. This has allowed Virginia to maintain its AAA bond rating, which saves taxpayers millions of dollars each year when we borrow money for things like road construction.
"But it is clear that even these very aggressive actions have not addressed Virginia's basic structural imbalance. Our entire financial code is antiquated, dating to 1910, when Virginia's economy was primarily based on agriculture. It offers too many loopholes for corporations to evade paying taxes. It forces local governments to rely too heavily on the property tax, something of great concern to people living in my district."
Amundson said Governor Mark Warner's leadership on this issue has been inspiring, but, "I am sure that we will see a number of different proposals for tax restructuring during this session. I will consider each of them carefully, and will evaluate these varying proposals on several criteria. Those criteria include: do they maintain the fiscal integrity of the Commonwealth? Do they provide localities with the opportunity to reduce property taxes? Do they keep Virginia's promise to eliminate the car tax and the tax on food? Are they fair? For too long, corporations have been able to avoid paying taxes in Virginia.
"Every state faces a point at which leaders are called on to make difficult decisions. I know that this tax restructuring can affect Virginia not only for the next biennium, but for the next generation."
AMUNDSON BELIEVES that the issues that will have the greatest impact locally are Inova Mount Vernon Hospital and Woodlawn and the re-opening of Woodlawn Road.
She said, "Senator Puller and I will propose two bills that could have a direct impact on the Mount Vernon community. First, we will introduce legislation to help keep Inova Mount Vernon Hospital where it is and should be. The relocation of the hospital will negatively affect our community, and I am determined to give our local governing bodies more authority to keep it here.
"Second, we must do something to reopen or replace Woodlawn Road. Its closing has isolated Mount Vernon from the rest of Fairfax County and increased the traffic congestion along Route 1."
Amundson's top priority for this session is to focus on easing the burden on property owners.
"Fairfax County relies too heavily on the property tax to fund needed services, but we can change that. By allowing localities to diversify their tax revenue, local supervisors can choose to lower property taxes.
"The City of Alexandria, for instance, can raise the cigarette tax to maintain a level property tax. As a delegate from Fairfax County, it is imperative that I make equal taxing authority a centerpiece of tax restructuring," said Amundson, who currently serves on two committees, Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources, and Counties, Cities, and Towns.
AMUNDSON STILL has some unfinished business and said, "One of my priorities last year was passing a school bond bill for unmet construction needs across the state. A recent study found more than $6 billion in unmet needs for school construction and renovation. Many of our Commonwealth's public schools need repair or to be replaced altogether.
"I am working across party and regional lines to provide funding for these projects, including millions of dollars for Fairfax County schools."
She believes that there will be a proposal to increase the gas tax to provide more money for road construction and she will introduce several bills designed to change the school funding formula so that "Fairfax County receives more of its fair share of education funding."
Amundson said that the General Assembly will work on some substantive legislation this year. "We are likely to address many diverse social issues. The General Assembly, unfortunately, spends too much time on issues that don't change anyone's mind. What we need to concentrate on are the critical needs of our Commonwealth, such as tax restructuring and education funding.î
IN ADDITION TO THE ISSUES, Puller will continue her work with the Courts of Justice, local government, and Rehabilitation and Social Services. She will also focus on tax restructuring, as well as education, transportation and healthcare issues.
Puller said, "The 2004 session is expected to be challenging as we work to pass a balanced budget. We had to cut $6 billion in the last two sessions of the General Assembly which was accomplished by streamlining government agencies to make them more efficient, eliminating duplication of services, enhancing technology, and making it easier for people to transact state business over the Internet. Although this should be continued, I believe it is imperative for the future of the people of Virginia to take a much needed, long-term approach to tax restructuring.
"We must re-examine and reform Virginia's tax code to reflect fairness in our state's taxation and to enable our counties to raise revenue more effectively and fairly as cities are allowed to do. I hope partisanship can be put aside to pass a comprehensive, fair, tax restructuring plan to benefit and protect our Commonwealth now and in the future."
Puller, who like Amundson, won re-election in the last election, said education and transportation are always two areas of top concern.
"I have introduced a $1 billion bond package to pay for school construction, renovation, and technology needs across the Commonwealth. Also, I have introduced a Senate Joint Resolution for a study for light rail in the Route 1 corridor area.
"Healthcare is another important issue. The threat of moving Mount Vernon Hospital is a pressing issue in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County, as we all know. I have introduced legislation to help with that threat.
"Virginia is facing difficult decisions as the 2004 General Assembly begins. We must work as diligently as possible to make the right choices for the people of our Commonwealth, not just for the present, but the future as well."