Virginia legislators are about to face a policy choice with long-term political implications.
The issue is a proposal from Sen. Bill Stanley, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on School Facility Modernization, and my one-time Post co-author, Paul Goldman (disclosure: my son worked as an unpaid research assistant for the subcommittee).
The heart of the plan is for the state to issue $3 billion in general obligation bonds as a down payment on fixing the commonwealth’s decrepit public school infrastructure.
Writing in the Roanoke Times, the two say the Supreme Court’s decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, which opened the door to states acting on their own to collect sales taxes from online purchases, could result in Virginia reaping as much as $300 million in new revenue.
Stanley and Goldman want to divert half of that potential windfall to help finance the school reconstruction bonds.
But there’s confusion on whether the money is already committed elsewhere.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed a sweeping transportation funding measure that dedicated potential online sales tax revenue to roads.
But that would only happen if Congress approved the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would establish a uniform system for states to collect online sales taxes.
Marketplace Fairness is still in limbo. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the online tax revenue would only be applied to transportation (and, in the process, lower the wholesale gas tax) if Congress approves the act.
Until then, it seems, the money is up for grabs.
Senate majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City), however, cautioned lawmakers to “demonstrate some fiscal discipline and channel this unanticipated revenue into our cash reserves” rather than spending it on pet projects in advance of the 2019 elections.
Fiscally prudent, perhaps. But politically uncertain. Stanley, along with Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R- Richmond), has weakened – but not undermined — Norment’s position within the GOP caucus.
Pushing the Stanley-Goldman plan over the line, then, will require Democratic support.
As the Roanoke Times notes, the idea of “taking money once slated for roads gives pause to some Northern Virginia legislators.”
Sen. Barbara Favola “suggested raising taxes a few times throughout the day as she toured schools in the New River Valley.”
That’s hard to do when incomes in the area are about half of those of Favola’s Arlington constituents. But from an urban Democratic perspective, unclogging local roads, not refurbishing crumbling schools downstate, is what matters.
There’s little doubt Stanley has seized on the school issue to address both a pressing need among his constituents and build his statewide political profile in advance of the 2021 statewide elections.
He’s also working hard to steal a traditional Democratic issue. He’s beginning to make headway. Some Democrats see it. Norfolk Mayor and former state senator Kenney Alexander has asked Stanley’s committee to hold hearings there.
Alexander sees the politics — and doesn’t care. He just wants the help.
General Assembly Democrats already have an example of what happens when local Democrats dither on school maintenance.
In 2017, Richmond voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum (another Goldman brain child) on school revitalization. While city leaders balked at the referendum’s particulars — coming up with a plan to address school construction need without a tax increase — its presence shamed them just enough to discover millions of school maintenance dollars they once contend were not available.
But even those miraculous millions won’t correct the larger problem.
A partnership between the state and local governments could help tackle the most problematic schools first. It won’t end the issue, as the total cost for refurbishing all Virginia schools 30 years and older approaches $18 billion.
But it’s a start. Making it happen depends on Democrats. They can choose tarmac and traffic lights, or they can listen to Floyd County superintendent John Wheeler.
In remarks to Stanley’s committee about school revitalization funding, Wheeler said “I plead to you, make it as fast as you can do it.”