How Much Have We Lost?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Weekly Column: House Budget Fails Our Schools, Transportation System

The following column appeared in the Mount Vernon Gazette, Mount Vernon Voice, and Patch.com on February 17, 2011:

The Budget took center stage this week in Richmond. Virginia budgets in two-year cycles. We passed the “big” budget last year. This year, the legislature tweaks
it to address changes in revenue or policy.

Under our system, the Governor proposes his amendments first, then the House and Senate pass competing measures which are then worked out in a conference committee and passed at end session. I voted no to the House amendments this week because of several serious flaws. First, the House reduced education spending by $92 million over what the Governor proposed - a $6 million cut for Fairfax County. The House also voted to mandate stricter physical education requirements – an $18 million mandate - but provided no additional funding . The state mandated standards of learning (SOL) testing be taken online this year - an $8 million unfunded mandate. If the state keeps mandating without funding, then Fairfax County will have to choose between higher real estate taxes or deferring the complete implementing full-day kindergarten. I voted against $34 million of unfunded mandates for Fairfax County Public Schools. This kind of irresponsible policy-making is not sustainable.

The House amendments also use $150 million of General Fund money to transportation to fund a “Transportation Infrastructure Bank” designed to float more bonds, i.e., to borrow. Transportation in Virginia has been historically funded with cash, not borrowing, and with gas taxes, 30 percent of which are paid by people who don’t live in Virginia.

Virginia’s General Fund money pays for schools, colleges and public safety. Most General Fund money we send to Richmond does not come back because Northern Virginians make more money and the state only funds 19% of our school budget. Dipping into General Fund money instead of the Transportation Trust Fund for roads not only compromises schools, colleges, and public safety, but it means that Northern Virginia taxpayers would pay for even more for downstate roads than already - in this state, services that everyone in Virginia should support. I stood up and spoke out against this on the House Floor and will continue to do so because it is not fair.

The House also passed a $2 million winery tax credit and a $25 million tax credit for corporations funding private school scholarships. A tax credit means lost revenue and this one is like asking every four-person Virginia family to write a $12 check to fund private school scholarships. I will not vote to fund wineries and private schools while we cut our public schools.

The House budget amendments also allowed localities to use Pre-School Initiative monies to fund full-day kindergarten, basically taking money from poor families to fund full-day kindergarten in more affluent areas instead of simply funding education directly. The House budget also prohibits stem cell research which will impede progress in curing diseases and limit opportunities for research and development and job growth in Virginia.

Finally, since the General Assembly failed to fully fund state employee (including teachers) pension obligations over the last decade, Virginia has a $17 billion unfunded pension liability. This is about one-half of a year’s worth of spending. The Governor proposed to stop the damage by undoing a 1983 agreement where state employees agreed to forego a raise and restructure the state pension plan to require employees to contribute five percent toward their pensions and to give them a three percent raise. The House and Senate Budgets basically rejected this proposal although in different ways.

Either way, this is a ticking time bomb that will ultimately affect our bond rating. We need to start funding these obligations now instead of continually pushing them off on to our kids.

Finally, last week, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce announced their Top 50 Transportation Projects in Virginia. U.S. 1 and a Yellow Line extension were not on the list. These projects will never happen without the support of the broader business community or statewide leadership. I hope the Governor and his team can help the downstate business community better understand our needs. We must start beating the drums now for the widening of U.S. 1 and extension of the Yellow Line. Look for me standing on a box on a street corner in Richmond with a megaphone.

Good government requires your involvement so please be in touch or come visit in Richmond so I can best represent you in the General Assembly. As always, you can find more information regarding my bills or my agenda on my blog – The Dixie Pig
(scottsurovell.blogspot.com). It is an honor to serve as your State Delegate.

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