The Charter School Trap
Common sense has prevailed, and the caring, average taxpayers have sent their message loud and clear. But it's not over yet. It has to be followed up with diligence in watching what our Board of County Supervisors and School Board do to promote what we want them to do.
Before the School Board on Nov. 20 is an application for a charter school. It was held past the deadline because it was so incomplete that it did not meet the regulations adopted Oct. 24, 2001. The regulations are sound, clear policies that, if adhered to, will give us the best of the best. Now is not the time to deviate, make waivers or relax anything.
The newly appointed Neabsco representative makes a good impression: She's ready and prepared, and wants to improve the Standards of Learning standings and get all schools accredited. I hope, in the same vein, she will endorse the quality of this regulation and insist that an application has to meet these goals.
I also hope the Occoquan representative, who is on the policy committee, will back these adopted regulations and not fall into the trap of voting for something just because it's the first.
We are sending a message to the younger generation: Adopted rules and regulations are to be followed Doing the right thing is a strong message that we, the people, sent Nov. 5, and we want to see it from here on.
Officials Out of Touch
Before the attention shifts to another issue after the Nov. 5 anti-tax vote, I have a note of interest for the majority of voters in Prince William County who voted against the transportation tax, and the majority of supervisors who supported the tax. With 60 percent of Prince William County voting against the tax scheme, it is clear what the voters want, and who is out of touch with their constituents.
Not all supervisors miss the mark all the time, but when they miss as badly as this, they need to be called on the carpet. One might spin this as, "it is unpopular to vote for a tax and sometimes you have to be unpopular to be right," if you assume a higher tax is the right answer. That spin excuse may not get a favorable reaction in the 2003 election.
To refresh your memory, on Sept. 10, the board voted to endorse the tax increase. The vote was motioned by Supervisor John D. Jenkins, with a second from Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III. Those voting in favor were Mr. Wilbourn, Mr. Jenkins, Hilda M. Barg, Loring B. "Ben" Thompson, Chairman Sean T. Connaughton and Mary K. Hill.
Thanks to these supervisors who voted in opposition: Ruth T. Griggs and Maureen S. Caddigan.
Most prominent of the tax hike proponents is Mr. Wilbourn, who wrote a very nice letter to The Washington Post that was published July 28. More than 73 percent of the Catharpin precinct voters in Mr. Wilbourn's Gainesville District disagree with him and voted against this tax hike. Who is Mr. Wilbourn representing when he speaks in favor of this tax, and no Gainesville District precinct upholds his endorsement at the polls?
Local government leaders may be noticing a pattern. Local party leaders should put to rest any doubt about who will not be their candidate for Gainesville supervisor in 2003.
As the 2003 election nears, these board members may change their actions and allegiance back to supporting the voters long enough to try to get reelected. Do not be surprised to see the pro-tax supervisors try to distance themselves from this vote. To correct their miscalculation, these supervisors may start with a public apology to the voters. They may try to deflect the responsibility by calling this a vote solely against Richmond.
If these supervisors stop aligning themselves with the supporters of this tax increase, then maybe we got the message through. Will this conversion be good only until after the 2003 election?
Gov. Mark R. Warner has invited those who opposed the sales tax increase to work with him to help find solutions to Northern Virginia's transportation woes. Fair enough. Trying to address traffic congestion without fixing the underlying causes is a fool's task. Here are just a few measures that will go a long way toward addressing the real causes, not a single one of which requires a tax hike.
Clearly, the antiquated formula for transportation money allocation throughout the state needs to be updated. Northern Virginia is the commonwealth's economic engine. It is in the near- and long-term interest of all Virginians to be sure that Northern Virginia has the tools it needs to remain economically robust.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has advocated changing the state-locality funding formula so that public transit projects are on even footing with road construction projects. Making this change will displease certain special interests, but will better serve the public interest.
The Dulles rail project is on the wrong track. There is no need to construct relatively expensive heavy rail. Monorail, light rail and BRT (bus rapid transit) are much less expensive, equally or more reliable, user-friendly and environmentally sensitive. With funding sources strained, heavy rail should be abandoned for more attractive options.
We need to dramatically strengthen public ethics rules, especially conflict-of-interest laws, which currently have no teeth. Elected officials who have a conflict of interest, or a potential conflict of interest, must be barred from participating in official processes where such a conflict exists.
Campaign finance laws need toughening. There are those with business before a state or local governmental body who routinely give large sums of money to helpful elected officials' campaign funds. This practice pollutes our political processes in numerous ways, one of which is to entrench incumbent politicians. Ethics legislation barring public officials from participating in all public processes related to matters a campaign donor has before the political body in which that official serves would help accomplish a long overdue cleansing.
Richmond must discover the backbone needed to authorize localities to adopt adequate public facilities ordinances. These will help ensure smarter land-use decisions.
Localities also must have the ability to assess developer impact fees to protect taxpayer interests. Developers have been on the Virginia welfare rolls for decades. It's time they learn to stand on their own two feet.
Most businesses have to prosper or fail on their own competence. Why should developers be subsidized with taxpayer money? The sprawl industry must learn to compete in the marketplace just like every other business. This will only happen if local governments have the tools they need to ensure fairness in their jurisdictions.
Gary C. Friedman
Not Too Heavy a Burden
Del. Scott L. Lingamfelter characterizes the anti-sales tax proposal group as a "small and under-funded grass-roots effort," and he seeks to have all groups "pull together cooperatively" in a quest for transportation improvements [Prince William Forum Nov. 10]. While his intentions certainly are worthy, they cannot be implemented without new funding sources.
Just about every federal, state and local leader in Northern Virginia -- the experts who deal with budget and transportation matters every day -- supported the sales tax increase. But the proposal was sounded defeated, due in large part to three points that were advanced by the "anti-tax" groups and bought by those who voted against the proposal: We are already overtaxed, the funds will be taken away by Richmond and used for something else, and spending by the state went out of control, with a 40 percent increase over the past four years.
But none of these reasons is credible. Virginia has one of the lowest combined state and local tax burdens, as a percent of income, in the nation. And, as most people should know, there is a huge difference between moving budgeted funds around and dipping into specific purpose bond funds. The latter is not only illegal, but such a raid would wreak havoc on bond ratings. Further, much of the 40 percent increase that was cited by the anti-tax groups was for reimbursements to localities for lost car-tax revenue; this is not out-of-control spending.
It is likely that we will never have another opportunity to raise $5 billion from the small change that was involved. Perhaps the "anti-tax" folks have a better idea. In his letter, Del. Lingamfelter proposed three avenues for addressing gridlock -- change the highway district lines, change the road classifications and ask Richmond that an additional "small portion" of existing funds be sent back to Northern Virginia.
We are talking about major gridlock throughout Northern Virginia. The sales tax plan provided three concrete steps to address the problems. Raise the sales tax a half-cent, create $5 billion from the tax, and build major projects throughout the region. But change the district boundaries? Change the road classifications? How much are these moves going to raise?
Further, there is no such thing as a "small portion" when considering schools and hundreds of miles of roads in places such as Bath County. Short of closing them up, there are not a lot of other choices. Also, it would seem that any proposal to reduce state support to these areas would need to be accompanied by a financial plan to offset their losses. Absent such a plan, there is no way anyone could make a responsible decision to reduce state aid to rural Virginia. And that factor is missing from all of the "anti-tax" proposals for getting "our share"!
As most people know, Gov. Warner inherited a monstrous financial and transportation mess from Govs. James S. Gilmore III and, before him, George Allen. Gilmore and Allen cut taxes; Allen "bought out" hundreds of experienced VDOT engineers and built two prisons for almost $1 billion. And Gilmore's budget, under which the state operates today, was never balanced in the first place. Almost daily we read of deep cuts in programs and classes in our college and universities, major increases in tuition and fees, deep cuts in health services, across-the-board cuts in other state services and hundreds of people thrown out of work.
What can be done? First, voters must be told the truth about state finances by the people who should know the facts. For example, right now, Northern Virginia gets back 46 percent of the transportation budget and sends 42 percent to Richmond. And the reason we don't get our "fair share" of the rest of the budget is because of the state constitutional mandate for free public education for all children across Virginia. Many jurisdictions in rural Virginia do not have the resources of support their schools, and this responsibility is spread throughout the state. And while Gov. Warner announces almost daily new industries that he and others have attracted to rural Virginia, the problems will not be solved anytime soon.
Second, voters need to know that major program improvements to transportation or any other priority require additional revenue. If an increase in the sales tax is not acceptable, then the General Assembly needs to consider other sources, such as an increase in personal, corporate and cigarette taxes. There is no free lunch in any of this, and as long as public officials continue to make "no new tax" pledges to out-of-area lobby groups -- our transportation problems will never be addressed on a regional basis.
Kevin M. Raymond