Transportation and education dominated the conversation Saturday at a town hall meeting at Sleepy Hollow Woods Elementary School featuring Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th), Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35th), and Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37th). Around 100 residents filled the Lecture Hall to listen to the Northern Virginia legislators deliver a mid-session update on current issues in the Virginia General Assembly.
Each representative noted that without a balanced transportation plan, Northern Virginia will be unable to maintains its roadways.
Saslaw criticized Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed transportation bill, arguing that the plan would take more than 30 percent of its money from the state’s General Fund which is used toward public schools, higher education, public safety, and health and human services, without providing the needed amount of funding to address Virginia’s transportation issues.
“We can’t adequately fund public schools and higher education and health and human services and a lot of other things [if money is taken from the general fund],” said Saslaw.
The bill died in the Senate last week, but McDonnell has said the plan would have raised about $3 billion for road and transit projects over the next five years. The plan would have also eliminate dthe state’s 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax and raised the sales tax in Virginia from 5 percent to 5.8 percent.
Saslaw said repealing the gas tax would give out-of-state visitors a “free ride” due to the high percentage (18-28 percent, according to Saslaw) of gas purchased by out of state visitors.
Saslaw also told the audience that by 2018, Virginia will have wiped out both its maintenance and construction budgets (which he stated is set at $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively) because the state runs through the maintenance budget every year and borrows from the construction budget to repair primary roads such as Little River Turnpike (Route 236) and Columbia Pike.
“We’re out of money… we can’t continue to do business like this,” said Saslaw.
Marsden was also critical about the current state of transportation, stating that the state’s transportation woes would scare away new and old businesses.
“If our transportation problems don’t get fixed up here… people will move their businesses,” said Marsden. “This is a pivotal moment in Virginia. If transportation isn’t fixed now, it’s unlikely to get done in the next four years.”
Marsden told the audience that residents in the southern part of Virginia, specifically in places like Martinsville and Danville who drove Virginia’s economy back in the '50s and '60s, would prefer a higher sales tax to raising the gas tax due to the longer commutes (some averaging around 40 miles) many deal with to get to work.
“When you start talking about gax tax… gas has moved to that part of all of our brains where health care, food, and shelter are kept. That’s how important gasoline is to these folks. They would rather pay a higher sales tax than a higher gas tax,” said Marsden. “They don’t see Northern Virginia as being on the same page as they are… We are connected to each other… they need us as much as they always have and we need them.”
“We are Virginians in Northern Virginia and sometimes, I think the rest of the state tends to forget that,” Marsden said, adding that the regional differences in Virginia are often expressed in political party choice. Marsden called for an end to the division arguing that the same issues that affect those living in more rural parts of Virginia are felt by all.
Although Marsden said representatives would have to come to a compromise, he emphasized that he and other Northern Virginia lawmakers would not cut school funding to pay for transportation.
“We got tough decisions to make and we got to make those decisions. We have to move forward, we can’t go back.”
Kory, who voted against McDonnell’s transportation bill, called the discussions in the House over transportation “extremely partisan and very negative getting very bitter."
“We have a political opportunity now to create a transportation plan that will make a difference… Whether or not we like the baseline we started with, this the only political opportunity we’re going to have for a long time where everyone thinks it’s important to get a plan passed,” said Kory.
Education and the “School Board in the Sky”
According to Kory, McDonnell’s proposed plan to create what’s been called the “school board in the sky” would allow an appointed statewide school board to identify which schools in the state are failing and decide whether the state needs to take over the school or decide how to fix the school, including relocating a school wherever the board chooses and firing its teachers. Funding for the school, including taxpayer money, would be given to the board. Kory called the proposal “unconstitutional” because it circumvents local school boards, but she said she believes some version of the plan will pass.
“I worry about it… it will open the door to a lot of loss of local control and you and I being out of the equation,” said Kory.
“We seem to have a pretty good system here and I don’t see why we need to turn the whole system upside down just for those six failing schools,” said Saslaw.
Kory said Fairfax County does not have any failing schools (the only school in Northern Virginia currently failing is located in Alexandria), but she added that the criteria could change.
McDonnell’s plan is largely motivated by the desire to have the most charter schools, Kory said, noting that charter schools are deemed to be the criteria for success by legislators in Richmond. Kory, who serves on the board for Fairfax Leadership Academy, the proposed charter school in Mason District, said the difference between charter schools and public school districts is it’s important to distinguish public school charters that are administered by the school board and private for-profit charters.
“It would be nice if we had more flexibility at the local level, but it has to stay within the local realm,” said Kory.