For the past 27 years, Virginia has faced the continuing question of how to properly fund, construct and maintain our road system to alleviate the many troubling transportation issues facing the Commonwealth. Since 1986, when our gas tax was last raised to 17.5 cents per gallon, 47 states have increased their own gas tax to reflect the impact of inflation. Without finding sources of additional revenue, Virginia’s funding for transportation-related projects is expected to virtually disappear by 2017.
Again this year, our region was ranked as having the worst traffic congestion in the entire country, and the situation is becoming worse every year. To face this challenge directly, I joined with 59 of my House colleagues (35 Republicans and 24 Democrats) to help pass a comprehensive transportation package that will allow us to move forward in alleviating congestion, repairing deteriorated pavement conditions, and constructing needed new roadways.
This bill dedicates $880 million yearly to transportation in Virginia, replacing the flat 17.5-cent per gallon gasoline tax at the pump with a 3.5 percent tax at the wholesale level. While the Governor’s original bill was designed to eliminate the gas tax completely, I and many other legislators considered it essential for us to ensure that out-of-state drivers, especially those using our two main regional corridors, I-81 and I-95, continue to contribute their share of revenue toward our road maintenance expenditures through gasoline purchases.
Another major change in the transportation package originally proposed by the Governor was to reduce the anticipated proportion of General Fund revenue being directed to transportation, while increasing the revenue allocated to education funding. Currently, the General Fund directs .5 percent of funds to transportation, the Governor had proposed to increase this to .75 percent, which was too substantial of an increase for me to originally support. The new package reduces this increase to .675 percent. To generate the new revenue needed for transportation the sales tax will now be increased from 5 percent to 5.3 percent statewide and .125 percent of that will go towards education funding. Additionally, should the Marketplace Equity Act not be enacted by Congress by 2015, the amount of General Fund spending towards transportation will decrease from $200 million to $60 million. The retail tax on gas would then rise 1.7 percent to make up for the lost revenue.
Most importantly, however, the creation of a dedicated regional funding component that will support Northern Virginia transportation projects has been included, without which I would not have been able to vote for the bill. For too long, our region has shouldered the responsibility for transportation funding without an equal share of dedicated funding for our own local roadway projects, which will no longer be the case. The Governor’s original package did not include this regional component. Nor did that package include funding for transit and the Dulles Metro Silver Line. Now, $300 million will go towards completion of the Silver Line and provide another alternate commute option.
I was disappointed in the $64 fee that was included for hybrid vehicles, a provision that I opposed. It is my hope that removing this specific provision will send a message to the 91,000 Virginians that drive these vehicles, including many in my district, that we applaud their effort to help sustain our environment while reducing our dependence on foreign fuel. I have spoken to the Governor about this issue and followed up with a letter requesting that this portion of the bill not go into effect.
In addition, I fully recognize that the increased sales tax rate does represent an added financial burden, particularly for those struggling on low incomes, which is why I was pleased to see additional dedicated money for passenger transit rail. This new funding will go towards the creation of additional affordable transit options that serve so many in our region.
Unfortunately we were not allowed to vote on the individual components of this package, it was an up or down vote and amendments were not allowed. As with any legislative compromise, I feel strongly that the benefits represented by this comprehensive transportation package successfully fulfill my long-standing commitment to addressing the need for Northern Virginia to shed the label of ”the nation’s worst traffic congestion”. I am now optimistic that we can focus our efforts on education, creating new jobs, expanding economic development and furthering our reputation as one of the best states in which to raise a family and establish a business.
Budget and Medicaid Expansion
On the final day of this year’s legislative session, the House of Delegates and State Senate approved the Budget bill, by passing amendments to the biennial budget. It was truly a historic moment in the Virginia General Assembly, as we agreed on a way forward to expand Medicaid coverage to nearly an additional 400,000 Virginians desperately in need of adequate health care options. Included among the approved budget amendments was a commitment to allow Virginia to opt into the federal Medicaid expansion program once it is determined that appropriate reforms are in place. The Governor agreed to give the final decision on expanded Medicaid coverage to the General Assembly, and I was proud to be able to cast my vote in favor of this forward-looking budget bill.
Included among the 400,000 Virginians (and the estimated 30,000 Fairfax County residents) who will meet the increased eligible federal poverty level for Medicaid coverage will be 84,000 children. Moreover, this expansion is expected to create as many as 30,000 new jobs while saving the Commonwealth approximately $300 million between 2014 and 2018, as the federal government will fully fund the expanded Medicaid program for the first three years.
The House budget also included important provisions that would restore “cost to compete” funding for Fairfax County Public Schools. This significant measure reflects the higher cost of living in Northern Virginia. The budget report also provides funding for the state’s share of a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and support staff. State supported local employees and college faculty will also receive a 1 percent raise in salary, which will bring the total salary increase in 2014 to 3 percent.
Language was also included that will benefit residents of the Northern Virginia Training Center and their families. This requires the Governor and Department of Health to ensure that each family is adequately prepared to move into a community-based program that is equipped to handle the specific needs of each individual resident before the Training Center can be closed. I am committed to closely following any and all developments, as we must continue to provide the desperately needed care for these residents and their loving families.
Finally, the budget included funding for an additional 200 MR (mental retardation) slots as well as 50 additional DD (developmental disability) slots to help alleviate the long waiting list for these services.
Part of Governor McDonnell’s education reform plan to label schools with letter grades, and creating a statewide entity to take over schools designated as failing, was approved by the General Assembly without my support.
My bill, HB 2199 did not advance from the House Appropriations Committee after being referred by the Education Committee. This bill was intended to increase the numbers of students eligible for expedited retakes of the Standard of Learning tests given to the Commonwealth’s public school students. Currently, only High School students are allowed to take retakes if they score within 25 points of the passing score. Students may not pass their SOLs for a variety of reasons, and they should be given a chance to retake them. Moreover, it is important to instill confidence, particularly in our younger children, who may be negatively impacted if they do not have the opportunity to retake a failed SOL test. This legislation was supported by the Superintendents Association, several County School districts including Fairfax, and the Virginia Education Association. It is my hope that this bill can advance next year using a different approach through a budgetary amendment.
My bill, HB 1774, which would have extended voting hours from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. for the benefit of commuters and all voters, did not advance out of Subcommittee.
In fact, a number of bills were passed that will make voting more difficult rather than easier for voters. Legislation was passed that requires photo identification in order to vote, which will negatively impact voters who do not have a birth certificate and will force voter registrars to purchase costly equipment to provide a substitute ID for those who request it. Another measure that passed requires the use of a federal scanning database to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls, even though this database has proven faulty and prevented some naturalized citizens from exercising their right to cast a ballot.