Editorial – Another  defeat for needed bill

Published 5:17 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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Suffolk property owners should lament yet another defeat for legislation that would help ease the financial burden of school construction.

A bill that would have let cities and counties ask their voters to approve a sales tax surcharge to finance school construction or renovation died in the House Finance Committee after approval by the state Senate. Authorization of up to a one-cent sales tax increase has been considered repeatedly by the General Assembly in recent years, to no avail.

As it stands, the estimated $25 billion required to fund school construction currently needed will continue to fall entirely on the backs of property owners via real estate and personal property taxes. 

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Supervisor Dick Grice in neighboring Isle of Wight County made a sound but unpersuasive appeal to the House Finance Committee.

A new elementary school, estimated to cost about $60 million, will cause his county to raise its “already high” real estate tax rate by another 8 cents per $100 of assessed value, Grice said.

Grice emphasized that lawmakers would not be raising taxes, but rather just giving a community’s voters a chance to assess one.

“We say schools are a local responsibility; that’s what this bill does,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the bill’s sponsor.

A sales tax would allow renters, of whom there are many with kids in public schools, to help fund new or renovated schools. Also, those who live elsewhere but commute to Suffolk for work or visit for pleasure would contribute any time they purchased a meal or tank of gas inside the county.

Those who own real estate would still shoulder most of the responsibility, but anything to lessen their burden is welcome.

Under the failed legislation, the additional sales tax could have been imposed for no more than 20 years and only be used for capital projects.

The bill died on a 4-1 vote along party lines, with Republicans opposed. It had passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

The Commission on School Construction and Modernization reports that more than half of K-12 school buildings in Virginia are older than 50 years, so a day of reckoning is coming, especially in growing cities like Suffolk.

Lawmakers owe localities flexibility in funding essential capital expenses like new schools.