Friday, March 26, 2010
During my campaign, I frequently argued that the number of trailers in Fairfax County's Public Schools seemed to be exploding and was not acceptable. According to the Washington Post, trailer inventory in Fairfax County is up 38% since 2007. When I attended Hollin Hall Elementary, Waynewood Elementary, Stephen Foster Intermediate, and West Potomac High School, I rarely saw a trailer. We had four at West Potomac when it first opened, but I'm pretty sure they were gone when I graduated. There were no other trailers at any other school I attended.
Today, the opposite is true. Nearly every elementary school in my delegate seat has trailers or as the School Board prefers to call them - "modulars." My daughter at Waynewood has to attend 4th Grade in trailers next year. The picture to the right shows 12 trailers at Waynewood (there are less today). Many of these are nice classrooms, but I have also heard complaints from parents about problems in them such as air quality. The Washington Post noted problems with vermin and "wierd bugs," leaky roofs .
FCPS formally blames the lack of construction on the time needed to obtain construction permits. Construction money has to compete with every other expense in the school system including teacher salaries, programs for at-risk children, and special education. The root cause of the proliferation of trailers is that our school population is exploding while the school system is suffering from a significant lack of revenue and long-term investment. While building brick and mortar schools is more expensive in the short-term, in the long-term it is less expensive. The primary cause of exploding trailer use is a lack of investment in our schools.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Back in January, I wrote about the value of Home Energy Audits and explained what I learned about my own home after having one done.
- Up to $250 for a home energy audit
- 20% towards new qualifying air conditioners
- 20% towards new qualifying heat pumps or furnaces
- 20% towards new qualifying hot water heaters
- 20% towards qualifying geothermal heating systems
- 20% towards qualifying insulation
- 20% towards new qualifying storm windows, storm doors, programmable thermostats
- 20% towards new qualifying refrigerators, dishwashers, etc.
There are also federal energy assistance weatherization grants for families whose incomes are below a certain level. Information regarding that program is here.
Additional Proposed Federal Rebates
- $1,000-$1,500 rebates for improving insulation, windows, and roofing; or
- $3,000 for comprehensive retrofitting.
Improve Your Home
Home Energy Audit
State Grant (20%)
State Grant (20%)
Federal Credit (30%)
Insulation & Weatherstripping
State Grant (20%)
Federal Credit (30%)
State Grant (20%)
Federal Credit (30%)
Total Out of Pocket Cost
Friday, March 19, 2010
I've previously described how reductions in state Medicaid funding play out (See Hurting the Poor & Leaving Money on the Table). Reducing provider rates results in lost jobs, increased private insurance rates, providers ceasing to take Medicaid patients, and leaves millions in federal matching money simply laying on the table.
The Budget that the General Assembly just sent to Governor McDonnell cuts Medicaid provider rates by 3% this year and 4% next year or a little over $100 million. In FY2011, medical providers - doctors, hospitals, labs - will be receiving $0.63 on the dollar for the cost of medical care provided to Medicaid recipients.
The New York Times ran a story this week with a series of narratives regarding the effects that Medicaid cuts are having on people across the United States. This video captures one woman's difficulties.
Here were some of the other narratives in the story:
- One doctor only sees Medicaid patients if they are friends of family.
- One man needed a root canal and a crown - New York Medicaid no longer covered it so he said he would just take Tylenol and Motrin (VA doesn't cover dental at all)
- One woman has to drive three hours distance to find a provider willing to take her son's tonsil's out.
- One doctor says "We get met with a blank stare of 'Where do I go from here?'"
Before the Budget passed, 58% of Virginia's healthcare providers predicted they would drop Medicaid patients if their reimbursement rates were reduced further. I guess we'll be seeing more people in the emergency rooms.
Many localities also use the state retirement plan to fund their school system's retirement. The General Assembly also passed legislation this year "adjusting" actuarial formulas regarding when people will retire and rates of return to reduce our payment requirements. The legislation also required new employees to contribute 5% of their salary towards their retirement - a 5% pay cut. Pay freezes are one thing - 5% cuts are entirely different. This will effect our ability to compete for teachers with other jurisdictions and professions. Another reasons I voted "No."
The state also allowed our localities to increase their class sizes and lower certain academic standards.
The effect? Localities also have to spend less on retirement, thus $700 million total less spent statewide on schools. In other words, we cut teacher salaries which were already 37th in the United States.
So is lowering our standards and cutting salaries going to have any long-term effects? You decide.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
The General Assembly on March 14 approved a two-year budget that abandons our core responsibilities and is fiscally irresponsible. I voted against it. While the budget, now with Governor McDonnell, reflects improvements made after many of us lobbied for our priorities and after our state senators pressed for some rationality, the final product was disappointing.
Before this session, $7 billion had already been cut from the budget. We needed to find $2.1 billion more to balance it as the state constitution requires.
Fairfax County received a record amount of money from the state and was only one of a handful of jurisdictions to receive any increased education funding. While we won a victory for Fairfax County that was a small step in the right direction, I was deeply disturbed by $250 million in reductions from statewide K-12 education.
The budget restored 250 Medicaid waiver slots for the disabled to be cared for in their homes, but also cut payments to health care providers by $150 million. This will jeopardize coverage for Mount Vernon’s low-income residents and increase rates for anyone with private insurance.
The Budget Conferees heeded my request to leave Mason Neck State Park open. However, they also "adjusted" retirement formulas, "borrowed" $650 million in cash from the state retirement plan and promised to repay it with interest in the future. "Borrowing" from the retirement plans is why California is in a downward spiral and now paying its retirees with "IOUs." Many of us worry that Virginia’s strong AAA bond rating is in jeopardy.
The budget also fulfilled the Governor’s request of $50 million for wine promotion, movie production and corporate incentives. These are not core government responsibilities when we are cutting education, public safety and safety net services like health care.
The House Democratic Caucus was given a 60-minute budget "briefing" along with 300 pages of amendments at 3 p.m. on Sunday with a vote scheduled for 5 p.m. Not only did I feel that this was unfair to legislators who had to vote responsibly, I thought it was an insulting way to treat the public. The people of Virginia were more interested in this budget than any other of the last 80 years and the people had 120 minutes on a Sunday afternoon to evaluate 300 pages of changes and send legislators their views.
While many of us fought for two months to improve this budget and achieved some victories, I believe this budget was balanced on the backs of low-income people, the uneducated, the sick and disabled, state retirees, college students and their families and the criminal justice system. My grandfather who struggled through the Depression used to say you can pay a little bit now or a lot more later. Therefore, I and 23 other delegates voted "no."
I hope you will continue to share your views and suggestions. Please email me at DelSSurovell@house.Virginia.gov or call at 571-249-44TH (4484). Also check my blog (scottsurovell.blogspot.com). It is an honor to serve as your delegate . I hope to continue to earn your trust.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Going into this budget cycle, we were faced with a $2.1 billion hole to plug after $7 billion of cuts already if we rejected Governor Kaine's proposal to eliminate car tax relief and increase the state income tax. The budget that the House & Senate just passed on Sunday night was "balanced" by using the following manuevers.
- $620 million was "borrowed" from the Virginia Retirement System to be repaid with interest in the future and another $150 million +/- by "adjusting" actuarial formulas for retirement contributions for new state employees to reduce our contributions on the front end plus requiring new employees to pay 5% of their retirement (a 5% pay cut).
- $360 million of federal Medicaid matching funds (new "stimulus" money) from the Federal Medicaid Assistance Program (FMAP).
- $90-120 million of "fee" increases - many of which were rejected during the General Assembly session.
- $3-10 million by not filling vacant judgeships or judgeships that will open up over the next two.
There are some problems with these methods. The Virginia Retirement System is not our Rainy Day Fund. I do not view "borrowing" monies allocated for retirement as balancing a budget. While it is not technically "debt" borrowed from a third party, it is borrowing from the future. It perverts our state's pay-as-you-go history.
The FMAP or stimulus monies have not been approved yet. They have been approved by Congress and the U.S. Senate but are in conference and President Obama has not signed the legislation authorizing the appropriation yet. Booking federal revenue based on the expectation that the United States Congress will do something is not prudent budgeting.
While there is no question that fee increases helped on the revenue side, Delegate Bob Marshall believes that many of these fee increases were illegal because many were rejected by the General Assembly during the session (e.g. these) and not approved in separate legislation. The last time Delegate Marshall challenged the constitutionality of a General Assembly budget maneuver, seven Supreme Court of Virginia Justices agreed with him. While Delegate Marshall has lots of views that I do not begin to ascribe to, every once in a while he is right.
Leaving judgeships vacant may seem harmless, but they have significant effects on people's lives. Each Fairfax County Circuit Court judge processes about 1,200 cases per year or about 3.2 per day. Every time one judgeship goes vacant, we save $250,000 per year, but trials get delayed. If delays become systemic which is inevitable with an entire judgeship vacant - criminals walk and people's lives get put on hold. We are going to have to (re)fund these judgeships in the future. The economic effects on the hundreds or thousands of people affected by delayed access to justice costs much more than $250,000 per year.
Virginia needs to also face up to the responsibility to maintain a sustainable Medicaid program, the federal-state program that provides health insurance to many aged, disabled and low-income people. The current federal healthcare proposal will require Virginia to expand eligibility and cover more currently uninsured people. If so, the legislature needs to determine how to pay for that and there is not enough money in the retirement system to "borrow" to cover that.
The reality is that Virginia's Budget suffers from significant structural deficits that we did not address this session. Our annual expenses exceed our annual revenue. The FY 2010-2012 hole was plugged with one-time fixes that papered over a problem instead of dealing with it. While I am glad that we fought and lessened the impact today, I am very worried about the future.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
- The State has already reduced its budget by $7 Billion before this session ever began - a huge amount.
- The Budget further reduces $250 million from K-12 education funding.
- The Budget reduces $50 million in funding from higher education funding
- The Budget reduces $150 million in funding for health insurance for the poor
- The Budget reduces retirement and benefits payments to government employees by nearly $900 million
- The Budget reduces funding to Constitutional Officers, localities and public safety by over $250 million.
- This Budget puts at risk our AAA Bond rating and our state retirement system.
- Juxtaposed against this, the Budget funds movie star tax credits, wine promotion, and $48 million in tax breaks for corporations.
- We were given approximately two hours to review the Revised Budget, debate it and vote on it.
- The House Budget's original $700 million education cut was reduced to $250 million
- The Local Composite Index rebenchmarking was restored along with education funding for Northern Virginia called "Cost to Complete"
- The Revised Budget removed block grant funding for programs for at-risk children and it restored funding for school breakfast programs and homeless programs.
- The Revised Budget used federal Medical matching money (FMAP) only for Medicaid expenditures instead of "borrowing" it for other programs.
My grandfather always taught me that you either pay less for things now or you pay more for them later. I do not believe these budget "cuts" are cuts. They are simply reductions in funding on going responsibilities that are now being pushed onto the poor, the uneducated, to middle class families and local government who now have to make the tough decisions.
Educating our children, caring for the poor, and keeping our public safe are a core responsibilities of state government. This Budget does not do that. It balances our budgets on the backs of the poor, the sick, the disabled, college students and their families, and the criminal justice system.
And we haven't done a single thing to resolve this state's transportation crisis.
Friday, March 12, 2010
The results of our actions are now starting to play out as local governments start to adopt their budget. Northern Virginia localities have proposed the following tax increases:
Current Tax Rate
Maximum Advertised New Tax Rate
* Hasn't been voted yet, but is proposed by City Manager.
Obviously, part of these tax increases are due to assessed property values decreasing, but if the state had not cut its school funding by $700 million this year, all Northern Virginia jursdictions were slated to get new monies from the state in-part due to declining assessments - instead Northern Virginia taxpayers are footing the bill through higher real estate taxes.
None of this also captures what goes on in the private sector which is much harder to measure. For example, when the state cuts Medicaid reimbursements to health care providers, they often raise prices on their non-Medicaid patients - driving up private health insurance costs with are either paid by taxpayers directly, result in lower wages, or lost jobs. Alternatively, when the state restricts Medicaid waivers (so people can be cared for at home instead of in a facility), families have to pay the costs or sometimes leave work to care for someone in need.
State reductions in higher education funding result in families paying higher tuitions. Virginia's colleges are already signalling major tuition increases for next year.
While many in the General Assembly are already taking credit for making "tough decisions" and not raising taxes in a recession, the end result is to push the tough decisions to our local governments, businesses and families who have to deal with the consequences. Kids need to go to school, people are still going to get sick, criminals will commit crimes, and our mentally ill need care.
These expenses are not going away - different people are just going to end up paying them. In many cases, people are going to end up paying who cannot afford them. One reason we have government is because its is more efficient and equitable for us to share certain expenses as a group instead of making individuals bear the cost of everything. This budget is a big step backwards and the bills are starting to come due.
Two weeks ago, I organized a bipartisan coalition of 31 legislators who signed a letter to Governor McDonnell asking him to designate all of U.S. 1 as "Historic Route 1." The Governor accepted my suggestion. I am hopeful that this designation and the recognition that comes with it will begin to raise the profile of U.S. 1 in Fairfax County and the Commonwealth and create more tourism and jobs, improve economic development and make U.S. 1 a true asset.
Today, I met with the new chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and we discussed my long-term vision of U.S. 1, including extending the Metro Yellow Line from Huntington, improving transit through Hybla Valley all the way to Fort Belvoir, and efforts to stimulate jobs, economic development and redevelopment. I hope to take more steps when I return from Richmond to further promote interest in revitalizing this corridor.
My legislation to level the playing field for Virginia companies who do business with the state or localities passed the Senate unanimously this week. I am hopeful that Governor McDonnell will sign that bill along with my other bills that passed both chambers.
The budget continues to dominate the agenda. Several proposals are being floated addressing the justice system: not filling an empty Fairfax County General District Court judgeship; eliminating one-third of Fairfax County’s Circuit Court law clerks; and eliminating funding for court-appointed attorneys (These funds were added two years ago after Virginia was threatened with a suit over its court-appointed attorney practices); and allowing prosecutors to set classes of cases where they are not seeking jail time making individuals allegedly not eligible for court appointed counsel. These cuts will result in delayed trials, acquittals of guilty persons for procedural defaults, and denying Fairfax County’s residents prompt determination of their legal matters on things as simple as divorces, adoptions or approvals for estate accountings.
As of today, the House of Delegates and the Senate seem to be at an impasse on the budget largely because of the House Republicans’ refusal to accept any of former Governor Kaine’s proposed fee increases and revenue assumptions that allowed the Senate to cut K-12 education by $550 million less than the House did. It is looking like this session may not end this week as scheduled.
Finally, I am also very concerned about the actions taken by Attorney General Cuccinelli this past month attacking environmental regulation and sexual orientation anti-discrimination policies. His recent actions are a step in the wrong direction and endanger our state’s ability to attract jobs, top students and top talent. We can do better.
In the meantime, please visit my blog, The Dixie Pig, at scottsurovell.blogspot.com for three to four more articles per week and many of my floor speeches. I need your input so please be sure to share your views and suggestions. It is an honor to serve as your delegate.
Friday, March 5, 2010
As the state legislature enters the final weeks of this session, a House-Senate conference committee is trying to resolve the differences in their two versions of the budget. I voted against the budget that came before the House of Delegates because it is short-sighted and will do great harm to our schools and many families in our area.
Education is key to the future fulfillment and productivity of our children and gives them more choices in life. Virginia’s public education system enabled me to accomplish whatever I wanted. The House Budget for education funding is disturbing. It guts kindergarten through 12th grade education by reducing payments to localities by $700 million or $233,000 per Virginia school and including about $40 million for Fairfax County. This will result in 28,000 Virginia educators losing their jobs. When combined with the Fairfax County School Board’s proposals, the proposed cuts are about $1 million per school and $1,000 per child in Fairfax County. This will result in fewer opportunities for Virginia’s children. It will also mean that localities will try to replace this lost revenue by raising real estate taxes yet again.
The House and Senate also proposed to "adjust" revenue and expense forecasts, something which always raises red flags with me. For example, the House and Senate passed legislation to reduce state employee pension contributions by changing payout formulas, delaying and reducing our obligations to state employees. The Pew Foundation estimates that state pensions are already $1 trillion underfunded nationwide, with Virginia’s being 10 percent underfunded. The legislature just proposed to underfund it even further. This is shortsighted and extremely risky in the long-term, setting us up to pay a much larger bill 20-30 years from now.
Today, Virginia’s per capita Medicaid spending is 48th in the United States. The House budget proposed to reduce Medicaid by $400 million. This will result in lower payments to providers and fewer low-income children, pregnant mothers and elderly getting health care coverage. It will also bring higher premiums for all Virginians with private health insurance and is predicated to eliminate 6,000 health industry jobs.
The House Budget also deleted arts funding which will affect local programs like the Mount Vernon Children’s Community Theatre and arts programs in our schools. It also reduced funding for homeless programs affecting New Hope Housing and Good Shepherd Housing. It wiped out funding for United Community Ministries’ Healthy Families Program, a program with a proven record of reducing domestic violence.
The House Budget passed with no Democratic votes for the first time in recent memory. I voted "no." Virginia has always prided itself on first-class public schools and colleges. We have always maintained our AAA bond rating and have been ranked the Best Managed State six of the last seven years. I will continue to fight these proposals because I am deeply concerned we are sacrificing our future for short-term expediency and putting Virginia into the kind of expense cycle that has handcuffed states like California and New York. I am hopeful that the Senate Budget will be more responsible.
I have posted many more articles on my blog The Dixie Pig at scottsurovell.blogspot.com. Good government depends on good communication and your input. Please send me your comments and suggestions.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Part of this is because of the long-hated Dillon Rule named for Judge John Forrest Dillon - that cities and counties only have the powers and authority granted to them by the General Assembly. One delegate told me he once had to get a bill through so his county could pay employees every other week instead of twice per month.
The consequence of this trend is that our residential real estate taxes in Fairfax County are much higher than Alexandria, the City of Fairfax or Falls Church because they have the authority to tax something other than their residents to help pay for services.
This week, The Mount Vernon Gazette seconded my argument with this great editorial:
Increasing Burden, But No ToolsThank you to the Mount Vernon Gazette for stepping up to broaden awareness of this problem.
In Virginia, localities like Fairfax County, Arlington or the City of Alexandria, have only the exact powers that the Virginia General Assembly has bestowed upon them.
The right to extend protection from discrimination to particular groups? No.
The right to decide when school will open in the Fall? No.
The authority to tax income? No, only the state can tax Northern Virginia residents’ income, and then the state spends that income everywhere but here. Northern Virginia gets back less than 20 cents on the dollar it sends to Richmond. No "piggyback" income tax allowed.
The authority for local elected officials to consider a variety of broad based sources of revenue to fund schools and other services? No.
And let’s be clear, voters could evict representatives who overstepped tolerances.
So now as the state budgets is shaping up, or shaping down would be more accurate, without knowing the exact details or numbers, it’s clear that hundreds of millions of dollars in non-optional social services and education expenses (K-12 and higher education) will shift to localities.
Localities are already grappling with decreases in revenue because of the decline in real estate values. And taxing real estate, commercial and residential, makes up the vast majority of most localities’ revenue base.
Arlington has proposed increasing the property tax rate by more than 11 percent, or 9 cents.
Fairfax’s real estate property tax rate would increase from $1.04 to $1.09, though the drop in home values would mean that Fairfax residents would pay approximately $48.55 less on their property tax bill than they did last year.
Home values in Fairfax declined between 3 percent and nearly 8 percent, depending on location (see chart at http://connectionnewspapers.com/photoview.asp?id=218615). But consider the drop in value since the top of the market. In McLean, the jurisdiction that held up the best, assessments are down 12.5 percent from the top a few years ago. In Lorton, assessments are down 28.7 percent from the top of the market.
So while in Richmond, the General Assembly slashes and burns its way to a budget with no revenue increases, here where the rubber meets the road, there are few options, because the General Assembly won’t allow them. They’re passing the bill, but refusing to allow any reasonable method of making up the difference.
One of my fellow delegates here describes Northern Virginia as a boiling pot that is going to explode if they don't let out some of the steam pretty soon. We'll see....
Monday, March 1, 2010
Overall, I thought that VDOT, Dominion Power, and Cox Communications, did a decent job working through the worst situation we have ever seen. However, many constituents called in to my office with problems regarding streets getting plowed incorrectly, being plowed very late, or not being plowed at all. I received several suggestions regarding areas that should have priority for plowing.
Many other Northern Virginia delegates heard complaints as well. Therefore, several of us signed a letter urging Secretary Sean Connaughton to have a meeting with us to discuss ideas as to how VDOT can do a better job next time.
If you have any additional thoughts, comments or ideas for me, please send me an email at DelSSurovell@house.virginia.gov.