Rising local taxes and the No Child Left Behind Act became central topics during a Monday night forum of Democratic candidates running for Del. Marian Van Landingham's 45th District seat. Speaking at the Shirlington community center, all six Democratic contenders said property taxes in Northern Virginia are placing a disproportionate burden on homeowners.
"Local government is too dependent on property taxes as a source of revenue," said candidate and former delegate Richard Hobson. "The assessments keep going up. That isn't going to help you when your taxes have to be paid."
Yet changes to the tax code, according candidate and Arlington School Board Chairwoman Libby Garvey, must be look at from a broad perspective.
"We need to look at the whole tax structure and how to improve it," said Garvey. "You need to think about taxes in terms of how it effects communities statewide, but we need to make sure the state doesn't keep to the same structure."
Garvey, Hobson, David Englin and Elsie Mosqueda each said they support Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's proposal to place a cap property taxes. Candidate and prosecutor Jim Lay said he could not support the plan because it could draw resources and funding away from other needed programs.
"The reality is that you're not going to adjust the tax figures until you can get a majority in Richmond," said Lay.
Former legislative aide to Del. Brian Moran (D-46), Elsie Mosqueda said the way to get that majority is by getting Virginia's moderate Republicans on board. The state's tax code, she said, "is based on an agrarian system, and it obviously needs to be changed. We have to look to moderate Republicans and work with them to solve the problems we're facing."
Rising property taxes, according to candidate and Georgetown professor Laura Mandala, are driving out the district's low-income residents.
"We're losing minorities," said Mandala. "We're losing the working poor. I don't think its good for our youth to grow up in a homogeneous community."
THE CANDIDATES connected the 45th's tax woes with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Englin, a former Air Force Officer turned political consultant, said the paucity of federal funding to support NCLB's mandates is forcing local governments to close the gap with tax money.
"It's one massive, unfunded federal mandate," said Englin.
Englin added that the best example of NCLB's impact on local governments is in Fairfax County, which spends $132 million meeting NCLB standards while receiving only $9 million in federal funding for it. "We need to get rid of the No Child Left Behind Act. It is horrible for education and it is raising our property taxes."
Yet Garvey cautioned that if Virginia refused to comply with NCLB, the resulting loss of funding could hurt public education.
"It's very important to know that when we do that, we lose Title I funding," said Garvey. "We're liable to shoot ourselves in the foot. At this point, if you don't tax real estate, you can't have the school system you want and the quality of other services local government provides. That's why we need a diversified revenue stream."
Lay said the way education funds are doled out by the state is based on an imperfect formula.
"It's a formula that says the richer you are, the less money you get," said Lay. "Yet this doesn't account for some of the idiosyncratic needs of our district."
That formula, he said, fails to consider the funding needs of districts where students might speak more than one language.
Turning to other issues, Mandala said one of her priorities is to repeal Virginia House of Delegates Bill 751, a ban on same-sex marriage and contracts between same sex-couples.
"This is another attempt by the right wing to denigrate the lives of same-sex couples in Virginia," said Mandala. "People are going to start leaving this state if they don't feel their basic human rights are respected."
Englin said he plans to work on lowering the cost of prescription drugs if elected.
"If you don't fight for what you want, you're not going to get it," said Englin. "One of the things we all need to realize as Virginians is that we're all in this together."
Hobson called for a dedicated regional source of Metro funding to ease the burden on local governments.
"Our transportation problem is a regional problem, and we need a regional source of funding to solve it," said Hobson.
Mosqueda said she hopes to revive the push for Van Landingham's bill placing close regulations on the coal-fired Mirant power plant.
"It isn't just Old Town that it pollutes," said Mosqueda. "It pollutes our rivers, our soil and our air."