Virginia Legislative Preview 2008

County Aims to Keep School Aid Flowing

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

For the first time in years, Fairfax County's top priority in Richmond when the General Assembly convenes next week will not be finding money for transportation.

It will still be about finding money, but this year the big challenge for Virginia's largest jurisdiction will be to keep state education dollars flowing to the county's public schools.

"There is a deteriorating fiscal situation locally and statewide," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

* * * A number of factors contribute to the crunch, state and local officials say. The deterioration of the housing market is likely to pinch local property tax receipts and make it harder for local governments and schools to defend continuing the steady expansion of recent years' government spending. The state also faces a budget shortfall. Affecting Fairfax County in particular is the recalculation of the formulas used to determine how much state aid each school system receives. Known as the composite index, the formula varies from locality to locality, according to the community's wealth, housing values and other factors.

In part because Fairfax is so affluent and because its property values have soared in recent years, its composite index has changed to reduce the level of state aid coming in.

"That alone is a loss of $20 million," Edward L. Long Jr., deputy county executive, told supervisors and lawmakers from Fairfax at a legislative briefing last month.

The number could improve, however, because one task facing the General Assembly this year is to adjust, or "re-benchmark," the local composite index formulas. And that's where lawmakers representing Fairfax come in.

Good news for Fairfax lies in the new political dynamic in Richmond. With the Democratic takeover of the state Senate, an unprecedented number of senior Northern Virginia legislators will hold powerful new leadership jobs. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) will become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) is the new majority leader. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) will run the Education and Health Committee. All are likely to be advocates for improving the formulas to protect Northern Virginia school funds.

Transportation remains an issue for the county, if not the priority it has been. Northern Virginia lawmakers will monitor attempts to amend the major transportation package approved in 2007, to ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars intended for the region's roads and transit systems are not diverted.

Other priorities for the county's legislators include toughening a new law that prohibits teens from using cellphones while driving by making it a primary offense, meaning police could pull over drivers for that reason alone. Currently, drivers can be cited for the secondary offense only if they've been pulled over for something more serious, such as speeding.

"Twenty-seven percent of our car fatalities this year were teenagers," Connolly said. "We believe this will save lives."

Fairfax will also closely watch the debate over how to improve the state's mental health system in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Five of the victims and the gunman were from the county.

Fairfax also hopes for more child-care subsidies for lower-income families. Of 9,746 children on a waiting list for such assistance, more than 3,000 are from Fairfax.

More challenging, perhaps, is the county's quest for permission to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policies and to ban firearms from public buildings. Virginia's constitution prohibits the county from taking such actions without explicit General Assembly approval, and many lawmakers outside Northern Virginia, who are typically more conservative on social issues and more friendly to gun rights than residents of Northern Virginia, have refused to grant it.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) told county officials that the sexual orientation policy would be a challenge to get through the General Assembly.

But the political environment in Richmond continues to change, and he said he is more willing than ever to help push it through.

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