Equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender residents, environmental concerns, vehicle and gas tax speculations, budget surpluses and more.
These were just some of the issues discussed at a constituent meeting last weekend in the Herndon Town Council Chambers. Initiated by Del. Tom Rust (R-86) and Sen. Janet Howell (D-32), the two-and-a-half hour meeting gave area residents the chance to discuss legislation before the General Assembly in a face-to-face setting with their elected officials.
"The most significant legislation this year will be the various approaches to transportation and land use," said Howell to begin the meeting.
Currently, three major, but very different, proposals aim to remedy the Commonwealth's transportation issues. One version is in the Senate, one version is in the House of Delegates and the third has been proposed by Gov. Tim Kaine (D).
"At the end of the day, when all the legislation is in, it's all going to be on the table," said Howell. "The Senate is quite aggressive about this, we see the crisis in the state."
At the end of this year's 60-day session, a transportation plan will be selected, although it will likely be bits and pieces from the different proposals, Howell said.
WHEN NOT DEBATING how to comprehensively solve the area's transportation problems, the General Assembly will discuss how to spend its $72 billion budget, Rust and Howell said.
While $72 billion seems like a lot of money, after adding mandatory expenses like the federal government's required Chesapeake Bay clean up efforts that are estimated at $2.25 million, the money quickly disappears.
Other required costs include $1.5 billion for k-12 public education, an increase of $450 million for the Commonwealth's Medicare/Medicaid program — this is just the cost, not the expenses required to run the program. An estimated $820 million will be dedicated to increase programs and services for the mental health community, while approximately $625 million will be dedicated to transportation this year. One-third of this funding would pay existing transportation project debts, Rust said.
To bring in additional transportation funding, legislation proposes to increase the sales tax on cars. The proposed increase would bring the tax from 3 percent up to 5 percent, Rust said.
A 5 percent sales tax is also proposed to be placed on gasoline wholesalers, although Rust does not support this. To alleviate the increase, wholesalers would pass the tax on to citizens by increasing prices at the pump, Rust said.
Herndon resident Susan Powell questioned if approved, what would the estimated burden be on residents?
"It's impossible for me to predict if there'll end up being an increase in the gas tax, and if so, how much," said Howell.
Rust and Del. Dave Albo (R-42) have proposed legislation to bring in additional transportation revenue from severe traffic violation offenders, Rust said.
Called the Abusers' Bill, the money generated from repeat offenders of Driving Under the Influence, reckless driving and other major vehicular violations would go toward transportation funding. Kaine has also included this idea into his legislation, and asked Rust to carry it for him.
"[A gas tax] is a slow increasing source of revenue due to cars' increased efficiency," he said. "The revenues from increasing the gasoline tax are essentially flat; a gas tax is not the right area to go toward."
UNDER THE IMPRESSION the Commonwealth had a surplus in funding this year, Planning Commissioner Ted Hochstein questioned if the proposed tax increases were a political gimmick.
Because Virginia is ranked as one if the worst state's in the country for Medicare/Medicaid coverage, the assembly is trying to increase program funding for Virginians, Rust said. Only 13 percent of the overall budget is dedicated to these programs.
The assembly is also debating if a constitutional amendment should be made to protect funding for areas like transportation, mental health services and Medicare/Medicaid programs, Howell said.
The Senate currently acts that way, using only general fund money for general fund items. Currently, 46 percent of the Commonwealth's money funds the general fund, while 54 percent of the money goes to non-general fund items.
Because the Northern Virginia area sees more traffic congestion than other parts of the Commonwealth, a bill has been proposed to raise $300 million to go toward only Northern Virginia transportation needs. This money would be raised through a 2 percent increase in rental car taxes, bringing it up to 10 percent, an additional fee to be placed on trucks and trailers, because they wear down the roads faster, and a $5 a day increase fee on lodging and hotels, among other things.
"I've sort of lost faith in VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] and Richmond on solving Northern Virginia's problem," Rust said, explaining this money would be used immediately through the addition of signals, stop signs and other street improvements that would help with transportation.
FORMER TOWN COUNCIL member John De Noyer requested both officials follow the Chesapeake Bay legislation, and requested an explanation of Rust's definition for Low Impact Development.
"To me, it means not just putting more rain gardens in the ground," De Noyer said.
Paula Prettyman, representing Equality Fairfax, highlighted bills before the assembly that would restrict the rights of Virginia's gay, lesbian and transgender community.
Bob Rudine, Herndon resident, requested the pair vote in favor of legislation that would give local jurisdictions more power to deal with illegal immigration, saying the town is in a "stop-gap mode" where it cannot prevent issues, it can only deal with "symptoms and consequences."
Other residents requested Rust and Howell vote against the same legislation, saying it would negatively impact what the town has done with the regulated workers center.
Additional concerns addressed when Rail to Dulles would be constructed and if funding would again increase significantly before anything is done, an anti-discrimination bill that would afford gay, lesbian and transgender employees the same rights as their colleagues and what the assembly was doing to increase affordable housing in the area.
Already two weeks in, during the 60-day session elected officials are estimated to review approximately 4,000 pieces of legislation.