Friday, November 27, 2009

Train Wreck or Day of Reckoning?

Last year, Virginia was able to avoid serious budget cuts due to $652m of federal stimulus dollars that came our way. This year, those dollars are gone and things are still heading south.

Two weeks ago, Delegate Albert Pollard from the Northern Neck gave me a great article summing up where we stand called Virginia's State Budget - A Train Wreck About to Happen. by James J. Regimbald, Jr. Here are some important points:
  • The entire bipartisan General Fund tax increase pushed through by Governor Warner in 2005 ($1.5B/yr.) has been depleted due in the last two years by (1) reduced sales tax on food (2006, $381M/yr.), (2) shifting auto insurance premiums and recordation taxes to the Transportation Trust Fund (200, $400M/yr.), and (3) Estate Tax Repeal (2009, $280M). P. 6.
  • The General Fund revenue decline is the largest in 70 years. P. 1.
  • The revenue decline expected for FY 2010 will be the first time revenue has gone down two years in a row since the 1930's. P. 1.
  • We currently have a $1B/yr. shortfall going forward in providing existing reduced services. P. 2.
  • Virginia only has the capacity to issue another $125M of bonded debt and maintain its AAA bond rating BEFORE the latest reduced revenue projections. P. 4. For some perspective, Fairfax County votes just approved $232M of bonds for school construction in November, 2009.
  • Virginia's unemployment trust fund has run out of money and Virginia will need to borrow from the federal unemployment insurance trust fund to pay its benefits. P. 6
  • He concludes by noting that we are facing at least a $3B budget gap in the next biennium (2010-2012) and that "major policy changes will be necessary to balance the 2010-12 budget." P. 6.
  • While the state is currently projecting $2.5B of revenue growth for the 2010-12 biennium, nearly all of that is consumed by growth in Medicaid spending using conservative estimates. P. 8.
  • By the way, this is only the General Fund we're talking about, not transportation. FY 2010 transportation revenues have declined by over 22% and the state's 6 year improvement plan was cut by $4B. P. 7.

In short - this is ugly. What is his conclusion? Here you go:

First, do everything possible to encourage job creation in Virginia by prioritizing investments in education and improvements to our infrastructure. A healthy economy is the only long-term answer to a healthy public sector. Next, Virginia's government is giong to continue to get smaller and even cor programs are going to be reduced further. Finally, determine whether Virginia's tax structure and rates are adequate to sustain a high quality public education, public safety, health and welfare, and transportation system that Virginians have come to expect. This debate may result in the roll back of tax relief that has been provided over the last decade. P. 8.

Do we have anything close to the revenue bandwidth to sell off the liquor stores or divert sales taxes to the Transportation Trust Fund as proposed by Governor-Elect Bob McDonnell? Does any of this take into account federal health care plans that contemplate a big expansion of state Medicaid plans? No.

We all know what happened in California with the state issuing IOU's after their assembly could not pass a budget. This story from today's New York Times is the latest in a parade of stories about the trainwrecks happening all across the United States as the fallout from the recession really hits and legislatures fail to deal with these problems. After the 2001-2002 budget cycle, I'm told that Mount Vernon Senator Gartlan and Governor Wilder never spoke again. This is going to be a very difficult cycle full of difficult choices for all sides.

On the one hand, this recession is as ugly as it gets. On the other hand, its hard not to look at the $3.7B/year of tax cuts enacted since 1999 (See P. 6) and wonder whether we would be this far in the hole with rotting infrastructure, bottom tier poverty programs, and skyrocketing college tuitions with those decisions. It is also clear that had we been more prudent - stashing more of our money away during boom times - would would be able to survive this budget crunch without as much disruption.

The first place to start with long term fixes is to take a hard look at changes to the Virginia Revenue Stabilization Fund ("the Rainy Day Fund") which was created after the crisis in the early 90's so we can better smooth out economic speed bumps. These problems also highlight the continuing structural problems in Virginia's tax structure where leaders have failed to adapt the government of this formerly rural state to an increasingly urban/suburban state with a service-based economy. The idea that the job and revenue engine of this Commonwealth (Fairfax County) receives 19% of its education budget from the Commonwealth while some rural jurisdictions get 80% is anachronistic.

In the meantime, get ready for a contentious 60 days session.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Invest in Preschool, Invest in the Future

Yesterday, I spent about five hours raking leaves at Tauxemont Cooperative Preschool with a dozen other parents - part of our duties along with our "school job." Tauxemont is a cooperative preschool which means it has significant parent involvement in the operation of the school. Two of my children went through their program, two currently attend, I'm an alumni, along with my brother and sister, and my father, uncle and aunt who attended in the 1940's after my grandparents helped start the school with other families in the mid-1940's.

Saturday morning, there was an interesting article in the Washington Post regarding the importance of preschool and the evolving debate over teaching techniques. During my campaign, I talked a lot about the importance of preschool and the lack of it in parts of my district. One paragraph jumped out at me:
Research has shown that by 23, people who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.
Here's a link to the study. Of course, there is a whole chicken and egg aspect to this - play-based preschools might be more prevalent among certain demographics, regions or areas, children with early emotional disturbances probably could not participate in play-based preschool, and the list goes on. Notwithstanding, it is something to think about.

The broader point is that the ten precincts in the 44th District on the east side of U.S. 1 have over a dozen preschools (Westgate, Whitman, Woodley, Hollin Hall, Fort Hunt Stratford, Waynewood, Sherwood, Belle Haven, & Bucknell). The four precincts on the western side of U.S. 1 have zero (Huntington, Groveton, Fairfield & Woodlawn).

The lack of preschool on the west side of U.S. 1 translates to more children arriving for kindergarten not as prepared as children on the east side and playing catch up from the first day they are in school. With test scores at some of the schools in our community heading in the wrong direction, we need to start looking at solutions immediately.

As with sports, knowing the fundamentals at an early age goes a long way towards being competitive. Preschool teaches important fundamental skills such as problem solving, cooperative play, language development, or things as simple as learning how to hold a pencil.

Virginia spends about 60% of what Maryland per child on preschool. Preschool also typically costs less per child than the $12,000 per child it typically costs to educate kindergartners. Governor Kaine tried to significantly increase Virginia's preschool spending, but was blocked by the House of Delegates.

The expansion of preschool would have meaningful benefits for the Mount Vernon community, especially compared with the rest of the County. I am going to put together a group to recommend solutions for expanding access to preschools in our community. If you are interested, drop me a note at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Michelle Obama Spotlights Hollin Meadows Elementary

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Hollin Meadows Elementary School. Hollin Meadows is right on the border of the 44th District in Kirkside Precinct, but also serves many children in the 44th district who live in Sherwood and Bucknell Precincts. The school is a terrific success story.

The student population at Hollin Meadows is very unique. The school draws from the solidly middle-class sections neighborhoods of Kirkside, Hollin Hills, Milway Meadows, and parts of Hollin Brook Park, but also from the diverse and less affluent Mount Vernon Square Apartments, Cherry Arms Apartments, and Woodley Estates mobile home park on U.S. 1. Over 18 languages are spoken at the school representing over 30 countries. Over 70% of school population is minority and it is classified as a Title I School due to its low income population with 45% of the students receiving free or subsidized lunches.

The parents-teacher organization has been very active in focusing on how to best provide an education to every child at the school and very active in alternative programs. Hollin Meadows is a Math & Science Focus School and as part of that the PTA has focused on a children's outdoors education and gardening to help the kids with science. Today's Washington Post article focuses the First Lady's recognition of this program.

Programs like this have been a real success story. Student test scores have risen dramatically over the past four years - with over 85% of last year's 6th graders passing their 6th grade Standars of Learning English Exam and 75% passing Math. The parents and the students are happy. The schools is a terrific success story about how a community can come together to build a valuable institution.

Unfortunately, the recession has jeopardized about $200,000 per year of funding for the school's Math & Science focus programs. Other schools in the 44th District are facing similar cuts in their own focus programs plus valuable programs like full-day kindergarten which currently exists at 12 of 13 elementary schools that serve the 44th.

If the state provided a fair share of support to Fairfax County's Schools this would not be as much of a problem. I raised this issue in my campaign. Fairfax County only receives about 20% of its school funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia - other jurisdictions receive over 70%.

Schools are largely funded with local real estate taxes. Fairfax County's real estate tax rate is $1.04 per $1,000 of value. In jurisdictions whose school programs are heavily subsidized by the Commonwealth, their real estate tax rate is less than $0.50 per $1,000 of value (plus their property is worth a lot less than ours). Addressing these structural funding problems in Virginia's budget is one way to help resolve Virginia's current budget crisis and provide long-term relief in ways that does not sacrifice our children's futures.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Welcome to the Dixie Pig

On November 3, 2009, I was lucky enough to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates after a hard-fought campaign. Although I have lived in this community my entire life, I learned a lot about the 44th District and this community so I created this blog to talk about my experience and issues of concern to the 44th District.

After setting up my Blogger account, I needed to come up with a name. That was easy. Back when Fairfax County had 40,000 residents and 2,000 square miles of dairy farms, when U.S. 1 was The Road to Richmond, and Beacon Mall was an airport on the highest hill for miles around, there was a sign at the corner of Beacon Hill Road and U.S. 1 with a happy dancing pig emblazoned with neon lights featuring "Air Conditioning" and The Dixie Pig - a reliable presence on Beacon Hill for 50 years.
Courtesy of Greg Willis
Image Courtesy of Greg Willis

The Dixie Pig was my grandmother's favorite restaurant. Granny always ordered her old standby, especially after her hearing went bad, a B.L.T. and "a Bud." The Dixie Pig was definitely a place where you could get a B.L.T. and a Bud.

When I was a kid, U.S. 1 was laden with its old quirky drinking holes - Hillbilly Heaven in Lorton, Jim's Country Club in Woodlawn, or The Belvoir Grill in Pohick (Fairfax's Finest had other names for these establishments). U.S. 1 had the only remaining duckpin bowling alley in the Commonwealth at Penn Daw, the only Krispy Kreme at Kings Crossing, a year-round flea market called the Thieves' Market in Hybla Valley, and one of the few drive in movie theatres in Fairfax County at Gum Springs. U.S. 1 was a very quirky and unique place. This great article says it all. It's about one man's quest to find the old Dixie Pig sign and perfectly summarizes Route 1 around the time I graduated college.

Since then, things have changed. Many of the old trouble spots are gone along with the 40's-era motor lodges and in 1996, The Dixie Pig was bulldozed for a Rite Aid. U.S. 1 has been invaded by a dozen new drug stores, banks, and the occasional big box store. The Thieves Market has been redeveloped into a California-style mall. However, our local supervisors complain that banks, drug stores, and big box stores are the only development they can attract to U.S. 1 as compared to the mixed use projects or office buildings sprouting up in Arlington, Tyson's Corner, Reston and western Fairfax County. The larger question is why?

The closing of Lorton Prison and development south of Fort Belvoir has turned the bottlenecks along U.S. 1 into a parking lots. Increased property values have compressed large families into smaller spaces. The recession has unemployment and poverty on the rise. Increased school populations are resulting in a proliferation of trailers. Demand for Head Start is up. Longtime elderly residents are looking for support to continue living independently in our community.

The lack of a modern transportation infrastructure has hindered redevelopment, job growth, and quality of life. Proposed school budget cuts brought on by a recession and the prospect of 14,000 new jobs + an $800,000,000 hospital coming online next year just south and west in Ft. Belvoir have people even more concerned with increasing traffic and its effect on our quality of life. After knocking 8,000 doors, I can tell you that people are restless, looking for action, and an end to the obstruction from Richmond that our representatives have battled for a decade or more.

It is time to invest in our community - in it's infrastructure and in its people. It is time to talk about real solutions to these problems not gimmicks. As I said in my campaign, it is time to fight for our share.

I look forward to representing the citizens of the 44th District as we all work to make our community a better place. Thank you for giving me a chance to represent this community and help make our community a better place. I won't let you down.