They Came and They Questioned

They Came and They Questioned

Budget priorities dominate Sickles' first Town Meeting.

Everything from transportation projects to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay was up for discussion last Saturday afternoon at state Del. Mark D. Sickles' (D-43) first Town Meeting since the commencement of the 2006 General Assembly session.

Held at the Franconia Government Center on Franconia Road, approximately 40 constituents were treated to a general overview of the new legislative session by not only Sickles but also state Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller and William Murray, deputy director for policy at the governor's office.

Sickles and Puller noted that the deadline for introducing legislation to be considered by this session of the General assembly was last Friday night. With more than 4,000 bills introduced by the deadline, Puller said, "So far it's been a very civil session. I just hope it stays that way."

Murray, who also served former Gov. Mark Warner, explained that every incoming Virginia governor works his first two years with the budget submitted by his predecessor because fiscal cycles are for two years. He also noted that the three primary spending areas of this budget are transportation, education and Medicaid.

"Long term care drives the Medicaid portion of the budget. Every dollar we put up gets another dollar from the federal government. But, since we are an affluent state we don't get as many federal dollars as poorer states," Murray said. As an example Murray cited Mississippi which receives $3 for every $1 they spend on Medicaid, according to Murray.

"Two thirds of the people in nursing homes throughout Virginia are on Medicaid," Murray said.

AS FOR NEWLY INAUGURATED Gov. Timothy Kaine's priorities, Murray listed them as follows:

* Put more money into mental health and retardation services

* $200 million plus to improve water quality and "sharply cut pollution in the Chesapeake Bay"

* Increase money to fund higher education research projects

* Increase transportation project funding by increasing gasoline taxes and the vehicle title tax, often referred to as a sales tax, which is now at three percent

"Transportation projects are traditionally not funded through the General Fund but rather through the Transportation Trust Fund. However, the gasoline tax has leveled out somewhat because cars have become more fuel efficient," Murray said.

He also noted that by "increasing the gasoline tax we increase money from drivers traveling through the state." This approach was buttressed by both Sickles and Puller.

"Instead of one big revenue source for transportation there should be several," according to Murray. Kaine's proposal covers four potential transportation revenue streams:

1. Raising the title fee from three to five percent. This would yield an estimated $400 million per year, according to Murray.

2. Increase the tax on vehicle insurance premiums

3. Increase vehicle registration fees based on weight of the vehicle. Currently it is set at $28. Under a weight-based formula it could increase to $40 for heavier vehicles, Murray stated.

4. Dramatically increase fines for "major traffic violations."

"Under the Governor's plan all the funds raised by these initiatives would have to be used for transportation purposes. If they were used for other purposes they would immediately expire," Murray said.

"All the proposals now before the General assembly would produce about $1 billion per year. The only thing we are really talking about is raising the money in different ways," Sickles said.

"Right now Virginia does not tax services but there is also a proposal to tax auto repairs. That would create a new tax approach because it would be the first tax on a service," Sickles said.

"There is also a proposal to provide one quarter of a percent of the present sales tax to stabilize the revenue flow for Metro. People that were opposed to increasing a sales tax last year now want more money for transportation," Sickles said.

"I had hoped that the governor would leave transportation for a special session of the legislature so we could get other issues resolved. I just hope we don't have a train wreck like before when we ended up going into three day extra sessions," Puller said.

DURING THE QUESTION and answer portion of the two-hour town meeting another topic discussed was the introduction of High Occupancy Toll Lanes on some major highways in the Washington Metropolitan Area.

"HOT Lanes are being considered as one part of the solution to easing traffic congestion for commuters," Sickles said. But, according to Puller, "We have to make sure the public doesn't get gouged by HOT Lane fees."

One attendee suggested that more consideration has to be given to "managed traffic before we look at HOT Lanes. We need to look at the design process."

Michael C. Montante asked, "How do HOT Lanes help anyone except those that can afford to pay to use them?" He noted that costs can go to $40 per day depending on time of day and day of week.

"This is a debate that has been going on for years. The main reason for HOT Lanes is that we don't have any money to correct the gridlock problem. HOT Lanes cost us (the state) nothing. A public/private partnership pays for them," Sickles said.

This, in turn led to a discussion of the state's bond/revenue status. "Up until about 30 years ago Virginia had no debt. Then we started borrowing money to pay for various projects," Sickles said.

"We are one of only six states with a triple "A" bond rating. If we reach our debt limit we are going to suffer the same way individuals do who over extend their credit," Murray said.

This was countered by Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman, who also presently serves as the chair of the Washington Area Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "There are responsible levels of debt. What is the point of having a triple "A" rating unless you leverage it?" he asked.

Murray answered , "The governor has said that bonding to provide money for projects is not off the table." General obligation bonds have been used in Virginia to fund mental health projects, education and parks, according to Murray.

A PARTICULAR AREA of concern dealing with transportation was the Route 1 corridor as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Report calling for an additional 21,000 personnel at Fort Belvoir. "What are we doing at the state level to meet the transportation needs as a result of BRAC and Fort Belvoir?" was asked.

"There is money in the budget to deal with BRAC. Although there was a lot of movement in the state of military personnel and facilities, we pretty much broke even statewide as a result of BRAC," Murray said.

"Fort Belvoir's growth is not going to work without more transit facilities. I already have a bill in on this," Puller said.

"We are already in gridlock on Route 1. You can't get to Prince William County at night right now. I'm sure glad we have six years to do this. I just hope it's enough time," she said.

"I have lived through other BRAC situations. But, this time BRAC clearly did not think through their proposals. Prime examples of this are Fort Belvoir and the Oceana Naval Air Station," Murray said.

"I put in a budget amendment for Route 1 and other projects impacted by the BRAC report. We need to get the implementation of BRAC done right," Sickles said.

Other topics included:

* Sunset legislation should be used more to retire old legislation that no longer serves its intended purpose, according to another attendee. "This first week we passed three bills in the House to remove unused legislation from the books," Sickles said.

* What efforts are underway by state government to work more effectively with local governments in emergency preparedness? was asked. "The new legislative session has several bills in on this subject," according to Murray.

As Sickles stated in his "Report from Richmond," the day before his Town Meeting, "This year, getting our arms the state's transportation problems is the number one challenge."