RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A new bill paves the way for local tax increases to raise money for repairing schools but Republicans are split on whether that’s the best approach.
Support from the GOP will be critical for the bill’s passage with the party now in control of all three statewide offices and the House of Delegates. It is expected to be up for a vote in the Senate as early as Monday before moving on to the lower chamber.
The legislation puts two Republican priorities head-to-head: lowering the cost of living and fixing crumbling schools. Governor Glenn Youngkin emphasized both of those issues on the campaign trail but has not taken a public stance on the bill. His spokesperson said he will review all legislation that reaches his desk.
The bill from Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who chairs the General Assembly’s Commission on School Construction and Modernization, gives every city and county the option of imposing an up to 1% sales tax increase dedicated towards school construction if it is approved in a local referendum. The state legislature has already authorized this for at least eight localities and, this session, at least two more are hoping to be added to that list.
A survey conducted last year by the Virginia Department of Education found more than half of the state’s school buildings are more than 50 years old and the price tag of a total replacement would be nearly $25 billion. Capital improvement projects total over $9.8 billion with the most common projects identified as renovations, HVAC replacement and grounds maintenance, according to the report.
McClellan said this bill is one of several proposals being considered this session to increase state funding and local tools. She said many localities rely on property taxes as their main source of revenue for school repairs.
“For many localities, they have raised their property taxes as high as they can,” McClellan said. “This gives them another option so they can sort of spread that burden through different sources.”
Governor Ralph Northam proposed $500 million in one-time funding over two years in his outgoing budget, a figure McClellan says is “clearly not enough” on its own. She said they’re also looking to set up a new state grant fund, put aside new ongoing revenue streams and reform cumbersome Literary Fund loans. McClellan said current law will also dedicate a portion of future casino revenues towards school construction.
McClellan thinks it’s past time for the state to step up. She said, “We cannot educate our children in buildings that signal to them that we don’t care about them. The condition of that building is just as important to that child’s education as the quality of the teacher.”
The local option sales tax increase bill got bipartisan support in the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee earlier this week. The vote was 14-2, with Republican Sens. Steve Newman and Emmett Hanger opposed.
“I expect there will be more no votes when it hits the floor. Going over to the House, I really don’t expect it to go through. I actually hope that it doesn’t,” Hanger said.
Hanger supports approving an optional sales tax increase for individual localities as the General Assembly has done in the past. However, he said opening the door for everyone is premature and will not solve funding disparities in localities that don’t have a big retail tax base. With record revenues at their disposal, he thinks the state should increase funding with existing resources and consider studying a statewide sales tax increase that could be diverted to localities based on need and an examination of local effort.
“I would submit that local governments would’ve had an easier time meeting that responsibility had we at the state level adequately shared existing resources. We don’t necessarily need to increase taxes now,” Hanger said.
Del. Israel O’Quinn said that would be his preference too but he is not opposed to the local option sales tax bill. The Republican from Southwest Virginia, where many localities struggle with poor school conditions and scarce local resources, has seen many past bills on this issue shut down. He thinks this one has a shot of passing.
“At the end of the day I think we have to come up with several creative solutions and that can certainly be part of it,” O’Quinn said. “We just have to make some progress on this because these buildings aren’t getting any better.”
The Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Education Association have all come out in support of the bill.