Creigh Deeds: Session report
The 2011 General Assembly session is racing toward conclusion. We are now at the halfway point, the crossover, when each house must complete work on its own bills. We are just days away from having competing versions of the budget adopted and finalizing actions on a number of controversial issues. Intensifying the work is the knowledge that after we complete the 2011 regular session later this month, we will be called back into a special session to redraw legislative and congressional districts.
The U.S. Constitution requires a census every ten years and the subsequent redrawing of congressional districts. Our state Constitution similarly requires the redistricting of House of Delegates and Senate districts upon completion of the census. With the census figures just released this week, we now know more about where the population shifts occurred. While the overall population figure for Virginia has been available for some time, the precinct level information has just been made available, so work on redistricting can begin in earnest. This is one of the toughest times in politics. Some districts gained population significantly and will have to shrink; others lost population and will have to grow. For many years I have advocated for reforming the process by which we draw district lines. My ideas found favor in the Senate, but have continually been rejected in the House of Delegates. This year the governor appointed an advisory commission on redistricting. Although I am uncertain exactly what role the commission will play, it is certainly useful to have more ideas as the process unfolds.
With the task of redistricting looming, we still have a significant amount of work remaining in the 2011 session. Constituents and special interest groups have filled the halls the last few weeks to talk about budget priorities. Over the weekend, the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee will release amendments to the state’s spending plan for the next year and a half. Central to those discussions is the governor’s transportation plan. The Virginia highway system was created during governor Harry Byrd’s administration in the 1920s and utilized cash to fund projects and road maintenance. Debt in Virginia has been reserved for capital projects, like buildings on college campuses, state office buildings, improvements in state parks, and mental hospitals.
While the governor’s proposal relies heavily on debt, the use of bonds to fund highways in Virginia is not entirely new. During the years when governor Gilmore was in office, bonds serviced by anticipated federal revenue were issued. We have grown more reliant on these short-term bonds during the last twelve years. In 2007, the General Assembly attempted to address our transportation problems with House Bill 3202. The legislation included longer-term bonds that we did not begin issuing until 2010 because of the economic slowdown.
The bond issue is of particular concern because we are almost at our debt capacity limit, which stipulates our debt service payments may not exceed five percent of general fund revenues. In order to move forward with issuing bonds, the governor proposed looking at the five percent debt cap as an average of general fund revenues over a period of ten years. The governor, therefore, proposes to issue over the next three years $3 billion in bonds approved in 2007 that are serviced by car insurance premium taxes together with an additional $l.1 billion in bonds to be serviced by anticipated future federal revenues. The governor’s package will cause total state debt servicing to exceed the five percent cap by 2014.
The governor’s transportation plan has gained a lot of support from Democrats and Republicans. Many agree with me that there is no quicker way to invigorate the economy and create jobs than to get a transportation package passed. We have transportation needs all over Virginia that must be addressed, and the bond package could advance about nine hundred projects that are already in the Six Year Plan. However, I am very concerned about the long term consequences of issuing debt to fund highway construction. I am particularly concerned that much of the debt is relying on future federal revenue. The 2010 elections reflected growing concern about the accumulation of debt and what is viewed as out of control deficient spending; yet, in 2011 we are relying on more deficient spending to get a transportation bill passed in Virginia. Furthermore, to rely on the federal government for increased funding is just not sound public policy given the federal government’s transportation trust fund has only been made whole by transfers from the general fund for the last two years. As we head into a vote on the transportation plan, I am trying to weigh all considerations.
It continues to be a high honor for me to serve in the Senate of Virginia. During the past three weeks, I have received thousands of emails from constituents about various bills and look forward to your continued input. If you would like to share your views or set up a time to visit the Capitol, please contact me or my legislative aide, Tracy Eppard, at (804) 698-7525 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Creigh Deeds is a member of the Virginia State Senate.