With less than a week to go before the 2005 General Assembly convenes, local delegates and senators are gearing up for this year’s assembly. As it does every year, the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce invited state Senators Jay O’Brien (R-39) and Toddy Puller (D-36) and Delegates Mark Sickles (D-43) and Kris Amundson (D-44) to a luncheon to share their thoughts on the upcoming assembly.
Amundson said that this year’s theme wasn’t as clear as last year’s which had the theme of “the longest session ever.” She believes that there will be a lot of focus on transportation this year. Already on the table is an $824 million package for transportation; the speaker of the House has proposed a $1.8 billion package.
“In both cases, that’s real money. I see some coming together of both appropriations,” Amundson said.
She also mentioned some other items that were of interest to the Chamber. Virginia is moving away from debt financing, a practice of borrowing against money that they didn’t have and which left VDOT with no money. This was also addressed later by O’Brien when Rick Neel asked how members felt the budget surplus should be spent. O’Brien explained that the spending of the surplus was determined by the finance committee, and that a lot of the surplus would probably be used to pay off existing obligations and put money in the trust fund. O’Brien estimated that the most that transportation would get out of the surplus would be $300,000.
Amundson addressed the trust fund, saying some effort will be done to build a firewall for transportation trust funds, as it will for all dedicated funds. This is one of the points addressed and voted on by the Chamber’s legislative committee, chaired by Doug Jones. He explained that the committee has met and taken a position on several business-related matters; these positions were outlined in a brochure distributed at the luncheon. The Chamber has taken the position that it wants to protect the transportation trust fund.
However, the Chamber opposes an increase in the gasoline tax, and Amundson agrees that it’s unlikely that a bill to increase the tax will pass. On another business-related item, Amundson is fairly certain that the legislature will eliminate the accelerated sales tax payment; this requires businesses to pay taxes on money that hasn’t been earned yet.
“I think it will go away,” Amundson said.
O’BRIEN ALSO BELIEVES that there is a lot more momentum for protecting the trust fund. He said that a bill was introduced last year, passed by the House and got bogged down in the Senate. If it passes the Senate, then it will be on next year’s ballot to be voted on as a constitutional amendment. He feels that there should be dedicated funds for transportation, but also feels that there are other ways to get money. One of those ways is to change the funding formula; this has been addressed but will probably not be viable unless more money comes available. Another approach that he’s in favor of is the “abuser fee.” When drivers who have more than six points receive a moving violation, they would have to pay a fee. This has effectively been done in New Jersey, and that state has already garnered $130 million in revenues.
“You can apply revenues where the infraction occurred, plus you get money from out-of-state drivers,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien doesn’t see the votes for an increase in the gasoline tax either; and firmly believes that “tax policy drives behavior.”
If Virginia stations increase taxes, drivers will buy their gas elsewhere. If rates are raised, seniors will retire elsewhere. Businesses will be affected if taxes are increased; because companies like UPS will have to raise their rates and the cost of items delivered by trucks will increase.
O’Brien would like to rescind the accelerated state tax and agrees with the Chamber’s position on the minimum wage that opposes “any effort to impose patchwork local wage requirement by localities or know those who contract to provide goods and services to the state or any locality.”
PULLER TALKED about an issue that is very close to home —t he reopening of Woodlawn Road. She said that she is working with Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis and U.S. Rep. Jim Moran and is seeing progress.
“That is going forward,” Puller said.
She is also following up on a Route One transit study that was started in 1994. Puller said that she is working with supervisors Hyland and Dana Kaufmann on that. While there is no money for improvements, but she said that “we need a footprint for where transit will go.”
Puller spoke about the proposed bond bill that will fund non state agency projects. They have already included $2 million for the Marine Corps museum in Quantico and she is hoping to include money for the Army museum at Fort Belvoir. Unfortunately, she thinks that he bond bill will be DOA (dead on arrival) in the assembly.
Puller is concerned about proposed changes to assisted living facilities. She is worried that the state will take away the Certificate of Public Needs.
“That would really hurt hospitals,” she said.
Puller would also like to see the funding formula changed for transportation, but doesn’t think that they have enough votes for it. She opposes the BPOL (Business, Professional and Occupational Licensing Tax); this is in line with the Chamber’s position, which states, “The Chamber supports a phase-out and total elimination of gross receipts that a business must pay to localities.”
SICKLES THEN took the podium and concurred that there are “an enormous amount of problems with transportation.” He would like to see the funding formula changed not only for transportation, but for the library system as well. Having been on the library board for many years, he is aware of the fact that only Fairfax County and Fairfax City are hurt by the current formula.
Regarding property taxes, he said that is a “big problem,” but one that he hopes will be helped by last year’s budget, which gives more money to education, law enforcement and mental illness.
Given the fact that the economy is good and gas prices are going down, Sickles thinks that the time is ripe for a gasoline tax.
“Do it now while prices are coming down,” Sickles said, and then explained why he would like to see the state get back to the purchasing power of 1986 (the last time the gasoline tax was increased).
“I don’t think it will pass, but we need to talk about it,” Sickles said. “There’s no free lunch.”
He concluded his presentation with the news that they now have the go-ahead to complete the final two miles of the Fairfax County Parkway.