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Votes

Commentary: New State Budget Misses the Mark

I voted against the final state budget last week because it fails to address our needs and reflects badly-skewed priorities. It was an eventful two days in Richmond.

The Senate budget deadlock centered on new funding to “buy down” tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and in Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads is in revolt right now due to a public-private partnership the Governor negotiated for a new tunnel that could cost Portsmouth drivers $1,000 per year.

Several years ago, the Dulles Toll Road was transferred to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which assumed responsibility for the construction of the Silver Line. Tolls will double next year to over $4 per trip. For someone driving five days per week, 50 weeks per year, that totals over $1,000. The High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes on the Beltway will bring more tolls, plus the Governor has plans to bring HOT lanes from Fredericksburg to I-395.

For reference, a $0.25 gas tax would cost a person who drives 15,000 miles per year at 25 miles per gallon $150 per year ($0.25 x 15,000 ˜ 25). A driver who gets 40 miles per gallon (MPG) would pay $93.75 per year. The overall U.S. average was 22.6 MPG last year.

The Governor objected to additional Silver Line funds on multiple grounds, but what this dispute really highlights is that there is simply no money. Virginia’s Transportation Trust Fund is flat broke and the McDonnell Administration and the legislature’s majority leadership are exercising feeble leadership to solve the problem.

I supported Senator Toddy Puller and her colleagues who objected to a budget lacking Silver Line funding. The Silver Line will turbocharge the Northern Virginia economy. Commercial growth in the Dulles Corridor will generate real estate tax revenues which would take pressure off homeowners in our area. More importantly, the extension of the Yellow Line in our area will require state participation. We need to establish the precedent for state involvement in transit funding for the future of our area. The deadlock resolved when Senator Chuck Colgan from Manassas unexpectedly changed his vote.

I voted “no” on the budget for several reasons.

First, in addition to the missing Silver Line funding, the budget shorts Northern Virginia. Over a decade ago, the state added a special supplement called “cost to compete” for Northern Virginia jurisdictions to help fund teacher salaries. The Governor zeroed this money out. The final budget only partly restored this funding. The budget cut beds at the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute. It raided Fairfax County’s traffic fine revenue which supports law enforcement operations.

The budget also took $59 million from the National Foreclosure Settlement and diverted it to rural Virginia sewage plants. Most foreclosure victims and damage were in Northern Virginia. I will write more about this soon.

The budget funds K-12 education at a lower level than in 2007-2008. In 2008, the General Assembly appropriated $6.8 billion for direct aid for secondary education. This year’s budget provides $5.8 billion, while costs are up and there are more children to educate.

The budget also funds a new $25 million tax credit to individuals and businesses who contribute to scholarships for “low-income families” whose children attend private schools. The threshold for being “low-income” was set over $70,000 per year.

Fifteen percent of the 44th District’s residents receive health care from Medicaid. Eighty-five percent of those are children. The rest are mostly elderly. The budget cuts Medicaid reimbursements to providers yet again. These costs will be passed along to people with private insurance.

The budget funded numerous tax credits for movie production, bee hives, the coal industry and wineries and maintained tax exemptions for yachts, online hotel booking and oil and gas drilling equipment.

Our state government, like the rest of us, must live within its means, but it also must set the right priorities. We can do better and I hope to work toward a budget that spreads the benefits and burdens of government spending more fairly throughout our state.

I would appreciate your comments. Please send me an email at scottsurovell@gmail.com. It is and honor to serve as your delegate.