City Council members lobbied their state legislators to fight for much-needed funding for transportation improvements and tourism funding during a work session Monday.
Issues related to transportation and tourism take up most of council’s nine-item legislative agenda, which was presented to Del. Mike Watson (R-93rd) and Sen. John Miller (D-1st) during the meeting. Both representatives said they would fight for the city’s interests, even as the state faces considerable financial challenges, but encouraged council members to make their voices heard at public hearings and through regional efforts.
When asked what council could do to see more action in the General Assembly, Watson held up a letter addressed to state leaders from the mayors and board chairs of 56 localities that make up the “urban crescent.” The letter calls for the state to address transportation concerns in the upcoming 2013 session. “This is a good start,” he said.
The mayors, who represent localities trailing south from Alexandria through Richmond and into Hampton Roads and Petersburg, released their letter Dec. 7. In it, the member jurisdictions request that state leaders “develop an effective business-type approach to solve critical maintenance and construction funding problems.” The letter notes the transportation funding model in Virginia hasn’t been modified in 26 years, with no adjustments to the state gas tax for inflation or increased fuel economy. The signers also said proposals to solve the transportation funding crisis must have a statewide solution and include revenue enhancements.
Watson said it would make a more persuasive argument if the jurisdictions were able, among themselves, to agree on the prioritization of transportation projects for financing. He said he would advocate for tackling some of the transportation projects in segments.
Although Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman said he would like to see legislators be creative with options for financing, including tolls, Miller said he didn’t want to see Hampton Roads “jump up and volunteer to be tolled.” Still, he said he wants to see the state make I-64 a top priority. “We cannot have world-class attractions like Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens and have folks sit in traffic for an hour-and-a-half and expect them to come back,” he said.
The city’s legislative agenda also supports a dedicated, long-term and sustainable funding source for the state’s Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund to provide continued passenger rail service from Newport News through Williamsburg to and from the Northeast Corridor. To make a convincing appeal for more passenger rail funding, Watson said he needs to see a justification or evidence more people will choose that mode of travel. “We need to change the mindset of folks,” he said.
For the city, advocating for transportation improvements goes hand-in-hand with its other top priority: securing more funding to promote tourism. The city gives about 10 percent of its operating budget to Colonial Williamsburg and the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance to promote the area. Although the city’s legislative agenda doesn’t suggest specific methods to put more money into tourism, council members suggested a fund-matching program could be successful.
Miller and Watson both agreed tourism funding is important, but Watson acknowledged the Williamsburg area has more competition for tourism funding than in the past. “The disadvantage to us here is that the definition of tourism has expanded to include wineries and movie production,” he said. He would like to see the area build on its growing business in hosting sports tournaments, offering the construction of an aquatics center as one example.
The city is again pushing for the General Assembly to require internet travel reservation companies, such as Travelocity or Expedia, to collect and remit occupancy tax based on gross sales, not net sales. (Read more about the issue here). Both legislators said they support the idea, but Miller asked to see more information about how much money the state might be losing due to the way internet booking engines are taxed.
The city also asked the General Assembly to eliminate a requirement for local governments to either accept reduced state funding or return money to the state through a budget line item called “Aid to the Commonwealth” in order to help balance the state budget. Tuttle said the city sent $167,000 back to the state this year. Watson said he thought that item might get some traction in the GA, adding, “We need to clean up our books a bit.”
The city leaders reviewed other areas of state spending that have slacked off in recent years, leaving the bills for the city to pay. Leaders said they’d like to see no further reductions in state funding for WJCC schools and the library; street maintenance; police support; correction officer compensation at the Regional Jail; health and human services; and constitutional officers.
In addition, Tuttle said the city doesn’t want to be required to support the following unfunded state programs: state permit fees for stormwater management oversight; the community waterworks fee for drinking water oversight; and the cost of primary elections.
Finally, the city advocated on behalf of the interests of The College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg. CW is encouraging legislative measures to require strong history and civics education in K-12 schools; CW’s focus has shifted toward being a civics education resource, rather than an outdoor museum with an educational component.
Miller said he plans to advocate for a pilot program that would see what happens if some schools drop the Standards of Learning tests for history and science in the third grade, which he feels distract from the importance of testing reading and math skills at that age. The last time he suggested such a change, CW was not happy, he said. Watson said he would support such an initiative, as well.
In the end, the biggest challenge to surmount will be finding areas of agreement between the two legislative bodies. “We’re facing a crisis and we’ve got to do something. The bills are huge,” Miller said during the transportation discussion. “The House says, ‘No new taxes!’ and the Senate says, ‘No money from the General Fund!’ We have to do both.”