By Stephen J. Nielsen
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus is calling for higher taxes to boost funding for transportation, education and other services.
The caucus outlined its legislative agenda for the 2013 General Assembly at a news briefing Tuesday. Seven senators from the Democratic leadership spoke, each championing different issues, such as Medicaid, gun control and a “Dream Act” to help the children of illegal immigrants.
Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw of Falls Church presented a plan to increase funding for transportation.
“I’m probably going to drop a bill later this week that will raise the gas tax 5 cents this year, 5 cents next year,” Saslaw said. “That would raise about $500 million a year and pretty much come close to stopping the raid on the construction funds” being diverted to other purposes.
Saslaw also wants to regularly adjust the gasoline tax with inflation.
He criticized Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan to remove Virginia’s 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax and raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent.
“You wouldn’t be saving Virginians anything,” Saslaw said. “You would really be helping the oil companies.”
Saslaw noted that North Carolina’s gasoline tax is 21 cents higher than Virginia’s. But last summer, average prices at the pump were about the same in both states, he said. He said this shows that gas prices are market-driven and largely unaffected by taxes.
While raising the gas tax, Saslaw also would increase the sales tax: “The other thing we need to do is go up 1 percent on the sales tax.” Half of the resulting revenues, roughly $600 million a year, would go to road construction; the other half would go to education, including colleges and universities.
Because of its current funding levels and policies, Saslaw said, Virginia doesn’t create an environment that attracts the best scientific researchers. He compared the 30 or so Nobel Prize winners at the University of California at Berkeley to Virginia’s three winners.
“Five years ago, they (UC Berkeley) passed a $3 billion bond issued for stem cell research,” Saslaw said. “Stem cell research in Virginia is illegal … 2008, U.Va. got $25 million. Twenty-five million for research. Twenty-five million here, you got $3 billion there. If you’re a scientist, where are you heading?”
Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas, proposed raising teachers’ salaries by 3 percent. Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, said Virginia must help close the gaps in achievement levels between different demographic groups.
Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, discussed the Virginia Dream Act. This would allow children of undocumented workers to pay in-state tuition for Virginia colleges if they:
· Graduated from a Virginia high school and have lived in state for three years.
· Have approval to stay in the United States under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action Status program.
· Have paid Virginia income tax for at least three years.
“These children of undocumented workers deserve the same chance every other child gets in Virginia to go to college,” McEachin said.
Sen. Barbara Favola’s topic was expanding Medicaid. Favola, a Democrat from Arlington, said this would benefit 250,000 Virginians who aren’t receiving adequate care.
The federal government has agreed to pay the entire cost of expanding Medicaid for the first three years and 90 percent after that, Favola said. She said this would help the economy and create 30,000 jobs.
Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, listed a number of bills concerning gun control, such as expanding background checks and requiring gun owners to report stolen weapons. He cited recent mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn.
“Mass shooting are coming at such frequency (there were seven this year) that it may always seem insensitive to debate change in the wake of these tragedies,” Marsden said. “But in overwhelming numbers, Virginians want something done.”
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, spoke in favor of proposed constitutional amendments to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Such measures are awaiting a vote in a Senate committee. Petersen urged people who back the proposal to show their support.