Legislators Talk Compromise on Warner Plan at Children and Families Forum

December 18, 2003
Audience at forum
An audience member poses a question for panel participants senators Emmet Hangar (left) and Creigh Deeds.

Virginia legislators sounded ready to compromise on many of Governor Mark Warner's recently proposed tax reforms during a Dec. 16 community forum in Caplin Pavilion, but noted that money would likely continue to be tight for many services affecting children and families. Senators Creigh Deeds (D-25th) and Emmet Hangar Jr. (R-24th) and Del. Mitchell Van Yahres (D-57th) answered questions from a vigilant audience and staked out their own positions at the event, co-sponsored by Piedmont CASA, the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families, and the Public Service Center.

Audience members had more than tax reform on their minds, expressing concern about the effects of the Standards of Learning (SOL) requirements and under-funding of education, the need for parent and adult education, affordable housing, mental health, and child support enforcement issues, and they repeatedly took legislators to task for not better supporting such social services. In response, legislators pointed to lack of state resources.

Sen. Hangar

"I think tax reform, if it occurs [as Governor Warner envisions it] … will result in something pretty progressive," Deeds said, considering Virginia didn't even have a sales tax until 1966. "If it can pass, it will allow us to do a lot of things to begin to address the problems we've discussed today."

Warner's plan includes raising taxes in the highest income brackets while lowering taxes for others, reducing the food tax by 1.5 cents, raising the sales tax by 1 cent, and raising the cigarette tax.

"I think what he's proposed is reasonable," Deeds said, calling the reforms "pretty modest." Virginians may have to decide whether they expect excellence "or whether we are satisfied with where we are."

Hangar said he wanted to work cooperatively with the governor, but disagreed with some of his recommendations regarding child care. "We are pricing child care out of the reach of many people when we are overly stringent in our requirements" of providers, he said.

Hangar thought Warner's proposal to allow localities to raise cigarette taxes up to 50 cents per pack, in addition to Warner's state-wide proposed hike, was too much, since it could change the tax from 2.5 cents per pack to 75-90 cents per pack. Hangar instead suggested a cap of 30 cents, which would raise $150 million statewide, with all proceeds to return to localities.

The panel also discussed Warner's Education for a Lifetime Initiative, which proposes an increase in educational opportunities for Virginia's adults. Deeds said he supported the initiative, which he said takes into account Virginia 's budgetary constraints. Hangar said he supported it in part, but "we need to put more emphasis on vocational education," adding that more students will be pushed out of high schools without a diploma because of SOL and Virginia state requirements and will need additional training to succeed in the workforce.

Another audience member involved in local adult education efforts said her office felt overloaded with the increasing numbers they are expected to serve, and noted her concern that many students who are pushed out of high school also would soon need services.

Sen. Deeds

Deeds noted that the state was at a crossroads in regards to education. "Are we prepared to lower our expectations" and join Alabama and Mississippi as examples of poor public school systems, he asked. Hangar noted that even in the prosperous late 1990s, the state only spent $2 million a year on adult education, when it needs to spend a figure closer to $30 million.

Hangar recalled being confronted by an anti-tax interest group leader who suggested that senior citizens are the most selfish group in the county, and are responsible for the drive to keep taxes low. He looked pointedly around the room, eliciting laughs — "I take exception to that."

"Part of being unselfish is being involved in volunteer activities," he said. He said each succeeding generation has been more selfish than seniors, with his kids' generation being "really selfish."

Van Yahres
Del. Van Yahres

In response to a question from the audience about why legislators are proposing repealing taxes when schools need money, Van Yahres said the Standards of Quality, or SOQs, were "totally underfunded by the state" and even if the state funds them as they were designed 30 years ago, Virginia is still $1 billion short. "We've got a long way to go, as far as funding goes."

Hangar added there was "too much emphasis on locally generated taxes" to fund schools — and declared his support for raising state-level taxes such as the income and sales taxes, while eliminating the food tax, "so long as it's used appropriately and channeled back to the localities."

When one audience member asked for more state support to get parents involved in schools, Deeds responded, "There's only so much raising of children we can do … At some point you lean back on personal responsibility." Hangar agreed that the issue was difficult to enforce from a legislative standpoint, but said the state could help parents overall by enforcing child support payments. Van Yahres pointed to the need for a living wage to bolster parents, noting that a major indicator of quality education is the state's poverty level.

One audience member called funding parenting education in school "a long-term cure for what's going on today."

"Right now we aren't funding public education as it is," Deeds responded. "I want to make sure we can fund that before we ask our schools to do something else." Van Yahres said schools don't have time to take on parenting education, and noted that social programs in the community offer such services. "I think the churches could do more in this area," he said. "Schools can't do it. I think it's as simple as that."

On early education, Van Yahres said schools have to take on a parenting role to some degree, since few moms stay at home anymore, and many kids grow up in single-parent households. "I'm all for mandating four-year-old programs and paying for them on a state level," he said.

The Legal Aid Justice Center's Just Children director, Andy Block, noted the discrepancy in requiring students to meet standards to graduate by 2004 before holding poor schools accountable in 2007, and said elected officials were failing the students.

"If anybody's failing, it's the people who elected the General Assembly," Deeds bristled. "We each decide who to put in office." He noted that North Carolina reformed their school system, paying teachers the same in each locality, making for a more equitable arena for students. He added that he would support a feasibility study of that system, although it would likely cost $2-3 billion more to switch Virginia to such a structure.

Van Yahres agreed with Block, noting that he's pushing a bill to delay the graduation requirement until all schools are quality schools.

To address the disparities in inner city schools, Hangar said public schools should rely more on state funds, reducing the importance of locally generated funds such as real-estate taxes and instead pulling money from income and sales taxes.

When asked about the lack of affordable housing in the area, Hangar criticized exclusionary zoning policies that, for example, don't allow mobile home parks. Van Yahres said localities need more flexibility with zoning rules, but the General Assembly isn't willing to give them that power.

"School teachers can't afford to live in Albemarle County on teacher pay," Deeds added. He spent several years of his childhood living in a mobile home, and supported it as an option of home ownership. "We've got to encourage people to strive for the American dream."

In concluding remarks, Van Yahres praised Hangar's willingness to compromise on tax reform. "I hope the senator is leading a change in his party," he said.

"I think it's going to require a commitment of several years to get where we want to go," Hangar said. "I hope you all remain engaged," he told the audience.

News Highlights