(Updated at 4:45 p.m.) County Board members spent a portion of Tuesday’s meeting expressing distaste with Governor McDonnell’s proposed transportation plan, namely the idea of eliminating Virginia’s gas tax.
The proposal would do away with the 17.5 cents per gallon gas tax, but would increase the state’s sales tax from five percent to 5.8 percent. The plan also would increase vehicle registration fees and add a yearly $100 charge for drivers with alternative fuel cars. McDonnell said that would raise about $3.1 billion over five years to fund road, transit and rail projects across the state.
County Board member Jay Fisette said that while it’s good to have some sort of proposal on the table in order to start a conversation about transportation funding, this plan is not the answer. He further stated that the plan was offered to the General Assembly at the last minute, without adequate time to review and understand it.
“Many people see this as a vehicle on which to find a better compromise or a more functional proposal,” he said. “This is hugely important to Arlington, to Northern Virginia and to the future of this state. I’m willing to give kudos for starting a conversation, but if this passed it would be a big mistake in the form it was proposed by the governor.”
Fisette believes eliminating the gas tax would incentivize driving and reduce the use of public transit.
“While it sounds good to eliminate a tax, they would be adding others. This is a user fee. There is a gas tax in every state in the United States. We would be the first to decouple the incentive to drive with the cost of driving,” said Fisette. “You’re still looking at a fee to ride transit, but you’re going to remove the gas fee for driving and spread that cost among everyone who buys something in Virginia. That doesn’t seem fair to people who choose to use transit.”
Several Board members worried that the proposal wouldn’t actually raise the additional money McDonnell says it will, but simply moves it over from a different area.
“It shifts money from the general fund, which has been the basic source of funds for education, human services and public safety, and shifts those to transportation,” said Fisette. “So it’s robbing the basic source of funds for the rest of our needs to pay for transportation.”
Board member Mary Hynes echoed Fisette’s concern.
“We can talk about how poorly they’ve spent the money they have, but the reality of what the governor has proposed is it’s mostly smoke and mirrors,” she said. “It’s taking away with one hand and putting it in another place. The actual new money that’s involved in any near term frame is very small.”
Both Fisette and Hynes pointed out that nearly one-third of the proposed funds ($1 billion) would not be immediately available because it’s tied to pending legislation in Congress regarding internet sales tax revenue.
The transportation plan’s perceived dilution of local government’s authority and an increased role for state government proved to be another recurring topic of discussion. Board member Chris Zimmerman called it a “blatant power grab.”
“This is getting very frustrating to a lot of people in local government, that the administration has been not only not helpful in providing more funding, but essentially is continually distracting the conversation with these efforts to shift power away from people who have to pay the bills,” said Zimmerman.
A legislative committee approved the governor’s proposal today, and it’s expected to go before the full House and Senate in the Virginia General Assembly next week. The General Assembly is currently about halfway through its short 45 day session.
On Saturday (November 17), the County Board took time at its meeting to discuss Arlington’s legislative priorities for the 2013 General Assembly session. During that discussion it quickly became clear the Board members fear significant cuts in the amount of funding the county receives from the state.
Board members are preparing to take a hit, although it’s unclear how serious the situation will be until legislators at the federal and state levels figure out their own financial issues.
In its legislative priorities package, the Board is requesting the restoration of state funds for Arlington, which have been cut in recent years to balance the state’s budget. A county staff report indicates that between fiscal year (FY) 2008 and FY 2013, the state cut $7.2 million in funding to Arlington.
The Board is also making a big push for more state funding for transportation, and requested around $1 billion annually for maintenance and continued operations on roads and the transit infrastructure. Board member Jay Fisette said state funding for transportation over the next three years is “disastrous.”
“We in Arlington and every local government in Virginia, we keep saying it, it sounds like we’re beating a dead horse, but the reality is that is the context in which we do all this work. That’s the context in which the manager has to balance a budget,” Fisette said. “Support from the state level has decreased substantially.”
Board member Libby Garvey shared Fisette’s concern.
“One of the things that I keep hearing, and it’s starting to sink in more and more, I think we all understand the fact that the federal government cuts things to the states, states cut things and it all falls down to the localities to have to do more and more,” she said. “As it gets tighter and tighter and we’re going to be raising taxes and cutting services, which it looks like we’re going to have to do, there’s going to be a lot of push-back from the public.”
County Manager Barbara Donnellan confirmed that the amount of funding coming into Arlington has slipped.
“The degradation [of funding] over the years has been significant,” Donnellan said. “The good news is we don’t have a ton of money from the state and the feds. The bad news is even what you have is still a significant hit if it goes away.”
A county press release offered the following highlights of the legislative priorities package:
- Fully restore state aid to localities funding – Between FY 2008 and FY 2013, the state cut $7.2 million in funding to critical services in the County to help balance the state’s budget. Cuts in state aid have reduced funding to the Public Library, the Courts, the police department, the Dept. of Human Services, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office and other services.
- Increase transportation funding with new, permanent and reliable sources — There is a critical need for increased funding for transit capital, operations and maintenance. Arlington joins jurisdictions along the I-95 and I-64 corridors in supporting a substantial increase in dedicated funding for roads and transit from new, sustainable sources. Arlington will advocate for at least $1 billion annually to support maintenance and continued operations of Virginia’s existing road and transit infrastructure.
- Require on-line travel companies to collect and remit all state sales and local transient occupancy taxes — Currently on-line travel companies, such as Expedia, Orbitz or Hotel.com, buy rooms from hotels, then resell them at a higher rate. They are remitting taxes to the state and localities at the wholesale rate they have paid the hotels,not the retail rate that they sold on-line. Arlington County, and other localities, are urging the General Assembly to adopt language that would require these on-line travel companies to pay the full amount of sales and use taxes to the state and local governments and Transient Occupancy Taxes to the localities.
- Ensure that the state provide adequate resources to support individuals leaving Virginia Training Centers under the Justice Dept. settlement — Arlington expects to need to provide for 23 individuals with severe mental and physical disabilities who will be discharged from the Northern Virginia Training Center External link by June 30, 2015.
- Housing – Support additional funds for the state Housing Trust Fund that was established in the 2012 budget with one-time money.
- Immigration – Oppose any state mandates to localities requiring local law enforcement officers to evaluate the immigration status of individuals.
The board will vote on the final version of its legislative package at its December 8 meeting, after hearing from the public. Arlington residents are invited to read the details of the proposed legislative priorities package online and offer feedback until Friday, November 30.
The General Assembly session begins on January 9, 2013, and runs until February 23, 2013.