State legislators participating in the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce’s virtual PolicyMakers Series panel discussion April 17 looked ahead to the budget challenges of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and accompanying shutdown, which they will tackle at the reconvened General Assembly session Wednesday.
This year, the General Assembly voted to make major investments in education, raising the minimum wage and other longstanding Democratic priorities. But shortly after the legislature finished its session, the COVID-19 pandemic cast doubt on the state’s previously rosy budget projections. The budget will be re-forecast in the summer.
“We expect to go back in once we have a better scope of what our financial outlook is,” said Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33).
Now, much like in Loudoun, Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed freezing new spending in Virginia’s budget, as the extent of the pandemic’s impacts on tax revenues and the economy is still unclear. That has delayed or canceled much new spending like increases in education funding, increasing the minimum wage or allowing collective bargaining for local public employees.
Legislators joining the Chamber’s forum pointed out those budget cuts are freezing, not canceling, new spending, although it is uncertain whether the state will be able to unfreeze them. And they pointed out that unlike the federal government, the state cannot run a deficit and has to maintain balanced books.
Boysko said she met those changes to the budget with disappointment, “but we have to be realistic, we have to be fiscally responsible, and we have to make sure that we’re living within our means.”
“The way forward is, we first have to be able to address the health crisis that we’re currently in, an then we have to address the economic crisis that was created by the health crisis,” said Del. David A. Reid (D-32). “…The budget is about priorities as well as a vision of what we want the future to be, and we’re going to have less to work with when we meet again.”
But, said those legislators, Virginia, with its ample reserves and previously-thriving economy, is better positioned than many states to meet the economic crisis.
“It’s tough to say you’re going to raise pay for teachers and public workers, and say you’re going to fund the housing trust fund and do it, and then when you go home realize that you can’t do it anymore,” said Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87). “So it’s a tough situation. But I’ll try to put a positive spin on this by saying that Virginia is so much better off than a lot of other states, and we are going to be so much better off because we are so fiscally responsible.”
The General Assembly will reconvene to consider the governor’s amendments to the budget—which this year also include other changes to state law to address the pandemic, such as allowing local elected bodies to conduct their business electronically. Northam’s proposed amendments reduce state spending by $551.5 million, and nearly double the state’s unappropriated balance to $1.2 billion.
Greenway Tolls Battle Falls to Locals Again
This year, it also became apparent that the task of fighting Greenway tolls will again fall to local officials, organizations and residents.
The General Assembly this year again did not pass any legislation to rein in toll increases on the Dulles Greenway, once again voting down legislation that was first introduced in 2015 by then-Del. David I. Ramadan to create additional state oversight of the Greenway’s finances and toll increases requests.
This year that bill was introduced by Subramanyam and co-patroned by Reid and Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10). It was voted down in committee, but Subramanyam gave his fellow representatives from Loudoun credit for fighting for it.
“I think there’s a lot of stuff in the press that just wasn’t true, what was going on,” Subramanyam said. “I would say that the efforts of the other three on this call—I would not have been able to move that bill anywhere without the efforts of these other two.”
This is the first year the Greenway will not be subject to a deal struck in 2008 to give the state’s only private highway limited but guaranteed annual toll increases; in the past, the Greenway got much higher toll increases under the same legislation governing it again now.
“I live next to the toll road, and we have a completely useless toll road in the middle of the county,” Subramanyam said. “It doesn’t make any sense. The tolls are way too high.”
Some legislators hearkened back to a bill Bell introduced in 2019 that would have continued the previous arrangement of guaranteed annual toll increases, in exchange for instituting distance-based tolling in off-peak hours for EZ Pass users. Peak hours, when tolls are higher, would not have had distance-based tolling.
That bill, negotiated in 2019 between Greenway representatives, then-Del. Bell, Reid, and Loudoun County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), was eventually withdrawn. It faced bipartisan and near-unanimous opposition from the rest of the county Board of Supervisors, many of whom believed Loudoun commuters would fare better with no deal at all. The Greenway’s owners ultimately withdrew support for the bill, and Bell replaced it in Richmond with a bill to study combining the Greenway and Dulles Toll Road.
Bell said “unfortunately politics got in the way.”
“We hear the community loud and clear on this, and trust me, this is something that we continue to work on,” Bell said.
Reid also said “unfortunately it got hung up in politics of the 2019 election and did not move forward, and now we’re kind of back to where were before.”
And Boysko, who said before the General Assembly session “I don’t know who thinks that this [the current Greenway arrangement] is the best answer,” told the Loudoun Chamber last week “I’m optimistic that we’re going to find some way of improving the entire corridor for our constituents.”
With another year of inaction in Richmond, Loudoun County government has now stepped into the Greenway’s application for five years of higher tolls, a rate increase of more than 30 percent. The county will file arguments and testimony with the State Corporation Commission opposing the proposed toll increases.
Commuter resistance to the Greenway’s tolls has also cut into county coffers; of the county’s significant investment in roads, nominally a state responsibility, tens of millions of local tax dollars are spent on providing drivers Greenway alternatives. That includes projects like taking stoplights off Rt. 7, and building alternate routes like Shellhorn Road.
In the past, other local organizations and citizens have also argued at the SCC against the Greenway’s toll increases, including the Loudoun Chamber.