How Much Have We Lost?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunshine, The Free Market, & Used Cars

This week, we had an interesting debate on used car sales. In 1966, the General Assembly passed a statute requiring any motor vehicle suffering more than $1,000 of water damage to be "branded" as "WATER DAMAGED."

Early in my legal career, I did some cases regarding used car fraud. I actually litigated the first case decided by the Supreme Court of Virginia regarding the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. It involved the sale of a used car with a shoddy engine that was concealed from my client likely through the use of super thick engine oil.

Legislation was introduced this session to raise that threshold to $5,000 due to inflation. I had concerns about this. I'm not clear why consumer should not be given as much information as possible about what they are purchasing. This statute effectively gave a seller a green light to hide a significant repair. Hiding material information in a transaction is normally called "fraud" (misrepresenting a material fact in an effort to get money from someone).

Moreover, no one could cite me to any other states that had this rule. Some people run car titles through certain states to "cleanse" the titles. I was concerned that this statute would make Virginia a dumping ground for water damaged cars.

The statute passed 73-25 and now goes to the Senate. Hopefully, they will amend this statute.

My floor comments are below (which I apologize in advance were not more artful).

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fighting for Education Funding

The following appeared in the Mount Vernon Gazette and Mount Vernon Voice on January 28, 2010.

Since travelling to Richmond, I have been focused on getting Mount Vernon and Lee residents our fair share of resources from the state. Last week, I discussed my transportation initiatives including a U.S. 1 Transportation District and modernizing the Commonwealth Transportation Board by using current population instead of Virginia’s 1932 population.

Most people and businesses move here for our quality schools. Fairfax County delivers education with some of the lowest administrative costs in the Washington D.C. area. School officials are predicting a $176,000,000 shortfall resulting in a series of historically unprecedented service "cuts" or what are really decisions to shift public responsibilities to Mount Vernon’s families.

The State provides only 19 percent of our school budget because of Fairfax County’s relatively strong economic showing under the state’s Local Composite Index or "LCI" which weights our relative real property value, per capita income, and student population against the rest of the Commonwealth. Additionally, the LCI is "rebenchmarked" every year for changed economic conditions.

Governor Kaine proposed to delay rebenchmarking by one year to save $23 million. However, this costs Fairfax County $63 million and I oppose it. This proposal is an unprecedented breach of a long-term understanding that I wrote about two weeks ago. I have co-sponsored a budget amendment with Del. Dave Albo (R – Lorton) to restore this funding. I will fight for this as hard as I can.

I have also cosponsored legislation with Del. Vivian Watts (D – Annandale) to mandate a new formula that is fairer to Fairfax County. This also highlights Fairfax County’s unequal taxing authority compared with cities or our neighboring jurisdictions. The City of Alexandria can tax non-residents with an events admission tax, a rental tax, a hotel tax, and a meals tax – Fairfax cannot. Because the City of Alexandria has more legal options, it only relies on residential real estate taxes for 31.5 percent of its revenue while Fairfax County relies on residential real estate taxes for 47.8 percent.

Each year, Fairfax County asks the state for equal taxing authority to more evenly spread its revenue burdens and take pressure off Fairfax County homeowners. Therefore, I introduced legislation to add Fairfax County to the other five counties (including Arlington) that can adopt a meals tax by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors. Restaurant meals are optional, a luxury, and are also paid by people who live outside Fairfax County – such as the one million annual visitors to Mount Vernon. This would generate $80 million per year and cover more than half the schools shortfall. A House Finance Subcommittee voted this bill down 6-2 this week, but I appreciate the support of Del. David Englin (D – Alexandria) who argued for us and gave his vote.

Next week’s column, will focus on some of my government efficiency initiatives. Good government depends on your involvement and you can contact me, comment on legislation, or request a meeting on my Web site – http://www.scottsurovell.org/ or read more of my views on my blog The Dixie Pig at ScottSurovell.Blogspot.com.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

**UPDATED*** "Fairfax's Own" Proposes to Short NOVA's Schools $144M

Last month, Governor Kaine proposed to freeze rebenchmarking or adjusting of the Local Composite Index which has been done every year for decades for one year. This change in policy has the net effect of denying Fairfax County about $61 million in new education funding due to the implosion of our real estate market and exploding school population. I blogged about this two times already here and here.

Yesterday, Governor McDonnell who campaigned on the idea that he was from Mt. Vernon and understood Northern Virginia's needs confirmed that he is going to affirm this policy decision, not just for one year but at least until 2012.

McDonnell’s office confirmed Friday that he would uphold the freeze implemented by Kaine. The outgoing governor proposed freezing the index until the 2012 fiscal year. He theorized that this would protect 97 school divisions that would lose money if the formula were re-calculated. McDonnell Freezes School Funding Formula, The Virginia Gazette (Jan. 25, 2010).
This decision is a breach of the state's responsibility to Northern Virginia's children. Here are the top six affected jurisdictions according to the numbers I was given yesterday.
Fairfax County$61 Million
Loudoun County$34 Million
Prince William County$22 Million
Stafford County$4.5 Million
Fauquier County$4.3 Million
Manassas City$3.1 Million
TOTAL$128 Million

The LCI measures data that is over two years old. Fairfax County educates 20% of the state's children. Today's school system has 10,000 more children than the numbers used to rebenchmark the LCI this year. Other jurisdictions in the Commonwealth are losing student population while we are gaining. This decision is discriminatory.

Using a formula avoids the annual interjuridictions turf wars that this decision is creating. Ditching or freezing the formula is horrible public policy. It guarantees an annual war between the regions of this Commonwealth.

At my Town Meeting with Senator Puller this weekend, my constituents were livid about this. Someone actually asked me to introduce legislation proposing that Northern Virginia secede from the Commonwealth because they were so mad.

The irony is that when revenue was booming, the rest of the Commonwealth took more and more revenue from Fairfax County. When our real estate markets crater more than any other jurisdiction we get punished. This is situation is beyond outrageous. Someone who understands our region and this state would not affirm such a short-sighted policy decision.

****UPDATED****
On January 27, 2010, the Governor's Office is now stating that the decision to freeze the LCI is still under consideration. It's a good sign that it's not a done deal yet.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mount Vernon's Delegate Gets An Energy Audit

Yesterday, I had an energy audit done on my house by a friend of mine's company, Continuum Energy Solutions, Inc. It was a fascinating $400 experience.

This year, I drafted and introduced legislation to license and regulate home energy auditors and to create a tax credit for home energy audits and green energy improvements, so I thought it would be a good idea to have an audit done of my house. My wife and I effective rebuilt our house about five years ago. At the time, we purchased fancy windows and doors, asked for the best insulation, etc. I thought we did a pretty good job. I thought we'd be in pretty good shape.

First, I found out we had three gas leaks. The auditor checked my entire gas system with a detector and found three pinhole leaks around fittings. It appears that the sealant that the contractor used to bind the fittings was failing.

Next, I found out that all of my hot water pipes were not insulated. This causes them to lose heat as water travels to its destination.

We discovered that my metal ductwork was not universally insulated and some of the insulation was put on sloppily (not flush with the metal) causing it to lose its insulating effect and efficiency (you can lose up to 60% of heated air before it reaches living space if ducts aren't insulated). Some ducts were not insulated at all. Some of the duct joints were failing because they were joined with duct tape instead of mastic (more permanent tape).

We also found a hole above a wall in my basement stairwell where the contractor had failed to top off the cement which effectively created a significant breach in the house envelope. My basement doors and window were not caulked or insulated.

The holes drilled through the wall studs for wires and pipes were not sealed off so air could travel up and down through my crawlspace and attic. Plus, I discovered that recessed lights create pathways for air unless you purchase models that are correctly sealed for ceilings below attics.


Next came the moment of truth. We hooked up a large fan to the front door, cranked down the air pressure inside, and walked around with an infrared camera taking pictures. First, a huge breeze came through my chimney - my flue damper was broken so I just never closed it. Big problem. Next, air was rushing through all of my electrical sockets and light switches on exterior walls. Air was rushing through the bottoms of the floor moldings because they had not been caulked before the toe molding was nailed down. Air was rushing through the recessed lights upstairs and coming through my attic door.


The big problem was in the basement. There were places that I could stand and feel a breeze hitting my face. The basement door and window had air blasting around the sides, and air was rushing in where the floor joists hit the exterior walls. There was a huge hole where the primary trunk line left my basement for the crawlspace. My contractor had attempted to plug it with some foam board, but it wasn't really working.

My auditor did some calculations based on the cubic air volume of my house and concluded that we effectively had a 4X4 foot window open 24-7 - in what was effectively a brand new house. Wow.

We discussed ways to fix these problems. They are going to send me a report in a week. I will post it up here when I receive it. Also, this company can come in an fix most of these things for me or I can do them myself.

People have made light of President Obama's "weatherstripping" stimulus program, but the average American home spends something like 20-30% of its energy costs ($450/yr.) heating or cooling the outdoors and this would have an significant long-term impact on our nation's energy consumption. Besides, as my energy auditor pointed out - if your car was dripping 20% of its gas on the ground would you just keep filling the tank?

I like to think I am energy conscious. I drive a hybrid. I'm an obsessive recycler. We compost our food and yard waste. I bought an energy monitor for my house about a year ago, but I haven't focused on my home energy use much. The federal government is offering tax credits of 30% of weatherization & insulation costs up to $1,500 in 2010, I'm going to Home Depot today.

I really like the squirrels outside my house, but I think they'll do ok without me heating the yard up for them. Fixing these problems on a nationwide basis would create jobs, they would also save a ton of energy, and is the right thing to do. We ought to get started.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Working on a Special Transportation District

The following ran in the Mt. Vernon Gazette on January 21, 2010.

Wednesday, Jan. 13 marked the beginning of the 2009 legislative session. After our swearing in, I was assigned to the Cities, Counties and Towns Committee (CC&T) and the Science and Technology Committee.

Fairfax County frequently does not have the authority or flexibility it needs to make decisions and provide services to 1,000,000 people. The CC&T Committee will allow me to work with Fairfax County to provide it with the tools that it needs to maintain our quality of life in Fairfax County.

The Science and Technology Committee will put me in a position to continue to grow the Northern Virginia Technology Industry. This sector has probably been the number one contributor of high-paying jobs in Northern Virginia. I am hopeful that we can work to bring those kinds of jobs to the U.S. 1 Corridor and our community.

On Wednesday, I also introduced 17 pieces of legislation. The first bill I introduced was a resolution (HJ 119) authorizing a committee to study the creation of a special transportation district to fund improvements from U.S. 1 from Crystal City to Dinwiddie, Va. The General Assembly approved a similar district in 1989 to improve U.S. 58 from Norfolk to Abingdon. Since the construction of I-95, U.S. 1 has seen much improvement around it, but not to the road itself. I am hopeful that taking a regional approach to funding our main road will result in funding for improvements such as widening, rail, and transit.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board decides what road improvements are funded in Virginia. Currently, its regional members are required to live in transportation districts that followed 1930 congressional district lines. Population has changed a bit since then. Today, Northern Virginia has 1 of 11 votes, but 27 percent of the population. Three districts have 62 percent of the state’s population. I have introduced legislation requiring membership to be based upon present congressional district lines so that when transportation improvement decisions are made, Northern Virginia has its share of seats at the table.

I also introduced legislation on a number of other topics that I will discuss in future columns or you can locate more information on my Web site — www.scottsurovell.org. I have also created a series of tools that you can use to comment on my legislation, comment on other issues or legislation, request a meeting, request a tour of the Capitol, or seek help on an issue with State Government. You can also follow my blog scottsurovell.blogspot.com for my views on issues and events as they occur in Richmond.

Your input is very important to me as we move forward — please comment early and often!

On Saturday, Jan. 23, at 10:30 a.m., I will be hosting a Town Hall Meeting with Sen. Toddy Puller at the Mt. Vernon Government Center, 2511 Parkers Lane, to take your input and questions. Your input is very important to me as we move forward — please send your comments early and often!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

LCI Games: Where's the Washington Post?

Earlier this month I wrote about how Governor Kaine was wrong to delay the rebenchmaking of the Commonwealth's education funding formula's in effect denying Fairfax County $60 million to help make up a $180 million shortfall.

While the Washington Post ran one article about this (on B-3) last week, the Editorial Pages have been silent. Well at least The Roanoke Times is looking out for us.

HONOR THE SCHOOL FUNDING FORMULA
Even if it means Northern Virginia will
get more money this year at the expense of rural communities.

Virginia lawmakers, especially those from less affluent parts of the commonwealth, probably thought this year would never come. The school funding formula favors Northern Virginia. Though it will mean less money for the rest of the commonwealth, the formula should stand.

The controversial formula, called the composite index, determines how much money each locality receives from Richmond for K-12 education. It is supposed to distribute funds equitably. Communities that can afford to pay more for their own schools receive less assistance than economically distressed ones.

What that typically means is that Northern Virginia communities pay a larger percentage of their educational costs than most of the rest of the state.

That has long annoyed Northern Virginians and their representatives in the General Assembly, but the formula has stood. It rightly directs resources where they are most needed.

This year, a disastrous national economy and the collapse of the housing bubble are forging new territory. The formula says Northern Virginia deserves a greater slice of the available funds than it has received in the past because plunging property values have led to less local tax revenue.

Gov. Tim Kaine, before he left office, proposed suspending the formula this year. Not only would that prevent Northern Virginia from receiving its additional percentage, but it also would save $30 million in a state budget that must guard every dollar possible if it is to balance.

While we cannot fault Kaine for seeking such savings, Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly should not make this one of them.

The formula for years has been a compact between economically diverse parts of the state. Suspending it when Northern Virginia stands to benefit would be unfair and dishonorable. If bad economic times are sufficient justification, then the formula would only ever benefit rural areas and would no longer be equitable.

That would lend credence to the calls from Northern Virginia to eliminate the formula altogether, and that would be disastrous for the rest of the state.

If the formula is honored, localities throughout Southwest Virginia would receive less money for schools than they otherwise would have. No one ever said doing the right thing is always easy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Inauguration Day in Richmond

The Inauguration of Gov. Bob McDonnell took place in Richmond today. It was an interesting experience.

We had a joint session in the morning where most of Virginia's federal elected officials, former statewide office holders (including one constituent (George Allen)), the Supreme Court Justices, and some other dignitaries attended before we marched out on stage. I also got to finally meet one of my new constituents, Former U.S. Senator John Warner whose door I knocked during the campaign and we spoke for a while (he wasn't home when I knocked). He's a real class act.

The ceremony itself was fairly short and sweet. The new Governor discussed some of his priorities. I was disappointed he chose to attack the concept of federalism, but otherwise it was a fairly good speech.

I am very concerned that transportation does not seem to be a focus of this Governor for this session especially after "the twelve funding mechanisms" he trumpted in his campaign and the huge criticism that was levelled at his opponent. Transportation was mentioned in one sentence of the Inaugural Address. I've heard rumors that a special session may be brewing for August. We will see.

After a scrum of F-22's flew over and Virginia's Native American tribes celebrated the Inauguration with a ceremony at the base of the podium, the parade began and I ran down the hill to a few receptions.

I ran into former Governor Wilder and we had fun remembering my last visit to the Governor's Mansion back in 1993. I also tracked down new Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Bill Hazel. I spoke to both of them out the priorities for my district.

Secretary Connaughton understands the importance of improving U.S. 1 especially since he used to live in Sequoyah Condomiums off Buckman Road and was the former Chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Secretary Hazel is a orthopedic surgeon from Northern Virginia who also understand the importance of human services in the 44th. I am optimistic about working with them moving forward.

After the receptions, I went back to the office, Skyped with my wife and kids for 20 minutes, and hunkered down for six hours to catch up on my backed up law practice, cleaning up my desk and getting ready for the week. I'm looking forward to seeing some folks from home for my ceremonial swearing in tomorrow afternoon in the Capitol and then committee meetings start next week.

It's time to starting making sausage.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Preliminary Constituent Survey Results

So far, I have received about 125 online responses to my constituent survey. Here are some preliminary stats. Remember that this is an unscientific survey based purely on voluntarly responses.

Budget Situation
  • 75% of respondents said to preserve K-12 Education from cuts. Next highest category was Public Safety (60%).
  • 76% of respondents favor state employees contributing 1% to their retirement.
  • 50% also said end the car tax reimbursement and increase the income tax by 1%
  • 18% & 15% favored Governor Kaine's proposed Medicaid cuts and K-12 cuts
  • 29% favored Governor Kaine's Proposed Higher Education Cuts

Transportation

  • 42% said raise dedicated taxes like the gas tax for transportation
  • 23% said to delay action until the economy improves
  • 9% favored diverting General Fund money to roads
  • 53% oppose drilling off the Virginia coast
  • 79% want Metro extended down U.S. 1
  • 49% want improved pedestrian access on U.S. 1

Other Government Issues

  • 75% support bipartisan redistricting
  • 72% favor mandating insurance companies to cover autistic children
  • 77% favor permitting stem cell research at state institutions
  • 70% want to change the state funding formulas
  • 51% would like Fairfax County to have authority to tax other sources than real estate
  • 51% favor reinstatement of the Estate Tax
  • 75% support investment in alternative fuels
  • 85% support tax credits for homeowners and businesses installing solar improvements
  • The best way to grow the economy was invest in roads - 37%

The top priority for respondents was to keep our schools strong.

Thank you for the feedback and keep it coming. If you have not completed my survey, you can do so here.

2010 44th District Constituent Survey

First Week in Richmond

It was an interesting first week in Richmond. I started the first day (Wednesday) by running over the Clerk's Desk in the House Chamber to file my 17 bills before the filing deadline. You can view them here, and I'll have more information on my website soon.

I had some family come into town. My uncles, parents, cousins, and a few other friends were in the Chamber along with my wife and kids who got to be on the floor for the swearing in. After my kids played with my voting station and finished fighting over my chair we got started, took the oath, and I became official.

It was a very humbling experience for me on a number of levels. First, being the grandson of a pair of Brooklyn jews who were not exactly welcome to Virginia when they first arrived. Second, I am also the grandson of a long line of Virginia farmers who struggled to make a living from Virginia's red clay with limited education and opportunities. My grandmother once told me that her father would never believe he had a lawyer in the family. A legislator would have really been a impossible to imagine accomplishment for my family.

After the swearing in, we were given our committee assignments. I was placed on the Cities, Counties, and Towns Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. The CC&T Committee will put me in a good position to help work towards giving Fairfax County the tools it needs to function more efficiently and the Science and Technology Committee will help me work to bring jobs to Mount Vernon by working with Northern Virginia's Technology Section that is our job engine.

On Wednesday night, Governor Kaine gave a great State of the Commonwealth Address reviewing his terms as Governor. Afterwards, there was a reception for all legislators and cabinet at the Governor's Mansion. It brought back memories from when I was a Governor's Fellow in 1993.

On Thursday, the parade of lobbyists, special interest groups, and concerned citizens started coming by the office. I met with church groups, concerned state and local officials, a few lobbyists, and some other delegates. One of my cousins, a fraternity brother, and some other friends stopped by to lobby on banking issues. My law school roommates brother came for the physical therapists. It was great to see old friends.

Some questions have also started to filter in about my legislation. If you have any questions or feedback, you can provide it here. A link to this will be on my website shortly.

One of the real eye openers was the extent of partisanship that exists down here. Several of my colleagues were removed from long-term prestigious committee assignments. This was presumably due to their involvement in our Caucus Leadership for candidate recruitment and fundraising. There were also several members moved off the the Privilege and Elections Committee who have supported bipartisan campaign redistricting.

Apparently, Friday everyone works to get out of town as soon as possible and the Republicans are busy doing the Inaugural Pre-Parties so us Democrats have lots of time to get some work done. It is going to be a contentious but be fun and rewarding session.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

State Budget Crisis Hits Home

The following ran in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and the Mt. Vernon Voice on January 14, 2009.

This session marks the worst state budget since the Great Depression. Gov. Kaine leaves office as the first governor in a long time to have a smaller budget than when he entered four years earlier.

When I started college in 1989, I remember Virginia going through a bad recession and the pain that it caused at my college, James Madison University. Programs and construction was cancelled and my parents received bills for tuition surcharges in the middle of the year. The General Assembly sessions became so contentious that people in the same party did not speak to each other for years after it was over because of the cuts that occurred. That crisis was part of what motivated me to closely follow state politics my entire life.

At the Fairfax County public hearing last week, we heard from over 70 people and dozens of groups that were staring changed lives in the face due to what is coming. We heard from the physically and mentally disabled who depend on Medicaid for home care, advocates for the homeless, domestic violence prevention programs that work, and from advocates for education. I have also met with at least six Mount Vernon PTAs regarding the proposed changes to our school system. These changes are not acceptable to me. And of course none of this even begins to address our crisis in transportation.

I do not believe that Gov. Kaine’s proposed budget fairly allocates the burdens of this budget upon Virginians either by region or by need. Going forward, we need to ensure that we do not punish our most vulnerable or place the budget of budget cuts on those with the least ability to pay.

I am also deeply concerned that the state will try to balance this budget by disproportionately using money from Northern Virginia. We cannot continue to be the piggy bank for the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. In times of crisis, everyone needs to get in the boat and pull on the oars.

I have created a blog called The Dixie Pig to communicate my views on issues of interest to the district. It is currently located at scottsurovell.blogspot.com. I have requested 26 pieces of legislation for drafting. I expect to introduce 15-to-20 bills. You can find more information regarding my agenda there or on my Web site at www.scottsurovell.org. Please contact my office via telephone or email if you have any questions during the session.

It is an honor to represent this community in Richmond. I look forward to fighting for you as this session unfolds.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Skyrocketing Student Loan Debt

One theme you will hear from me a lot is how our society is not investing in our people and that today's generations are pushing all of its obligations onto future obligations by using debt and cutting education spending (See Richmond's Attack on the Middle Class).

One more symbol of this is graduate school debt. There was an interesting article in the ABA Journal about how one-third of all law students expect to graduate with $120,000 of student loan debt. This is up from 19% of all law students just three years ago in 2006.

I hit on this theme a couple weeks ago in this article - Can We Afford to Cut Our Colleges. This is like starting off life with a mortgage. I have no idea how these kids ever save up the money to buy a house and start a life like my parents were able to do because of affordable state-supported colleges and graduate schools.

These trends are also true of college and other graduate school programs and are completely unsustainable.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Human Face of State Budget Cuts

Today, I attended our Pre-Session Public Hearing at the Fairfax County Government Center with most of the rest of the Northern Virginia Delegation. We heard from about 70 Northern Virginians over the course of about four hours.

Many of the people we heard from were physically or mentally disabled, their family members, or caretakers. Many people struggled through their conditions to simply speak or to relate what they go through on a daily basis, others asked us to sustain funding for Medicaid waivers just so they could have some semblance of a normal life. We heard from an eight-year old with ostogenesis imperfecta and a brain injury who spoke from her wheelchair and had the most incredible smile before, during and after her comments notwithstanding her daily struggle.

We heard from people who work with domestic violence prevention, the youth, and mental health. Person after person with stories.

We heard from the Virginia Autism Project who has struggled for years to attain greater awareness of their daily emotional and financial struggle, and their effort to obtain insurance coverage to be treated the same as other illnesses and conditions.

We heard from the public school communities who spoke about the devasting impact the impending budget cuts are going to have on Fairfax County's children - including my own. They also spoke to the injustice of refusing to rebenchmark the Local Composite Index to give Fairfax County its fair share.

One speaker addressed the state's refusal to deal with our transportation situation and noted that his street had not been resurfaced in 26 years.

Our State Government affects real people's lives every day and today's hearing really put a human face on the situation we are walking into in Richmond. Notwithstanding that, our Governor-Elect has promised to cut another $2 billion from our state budget.

Mt. Vernon Senator Joe Gartlan was a steady voice for many of these people throughout his career. I look forward to fighting for them as well.
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