An effort in the Virginia House of Delegates to give all localities the ability — via a voter referendum — to increase the local sales tax in order to pay for school construction projects was stopped in a subcommittee meeting Friday morning.
The subcommittee voted 5-3 all three times to lay on the table all three bills relating to the issue. A similar bill carried by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudon County, was struck from the agenda at the start of the meeting.
Similar legislation cleared the Virginia Senate earlier this week, meaning the overall push isn’t dead, yet.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, sponsored a Charlottesville-specific bill as well as one that would’ve given all the localities the authorization to ask voters for approval.
“We’ll have another chance when the Senate bills come over to the House,” Hudson said after the meeting. “That means Virginians whose Delegates’ blocked this bill need to make their voices heard if they want the vote to change.”
Two of the bills would give Charlottesville the authority to ask voters to approve a sales tax increase up to 1%. That increase would bring in an extra $12 million a year, city officials have said, and go toward the renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School.
Charlottesville officials have said increasing the sales tax would be key to moving forward with the project, which has been discussed for more than a decade. Councilors Sena Magill and Juandiego Wade lent their support to the bills during the meeting.
“Impossible to overstate broad support for the bill,” Hudson tweeted after the meeting. “Unanimous rec from the bipartisan commission on school modernization. Red counties, blue cities, teachers, school boards, & superintendents all in.”
The other killed bill would give Prince Edward County the authority to seek a referendum.
No one spoke against the bills during the meeting, which were supported by the Virginia School Boards Association, Virginia Education Association, Virginia Municipal League, and Virginia Association of Counties, among other groups.
Lawmakers did not ask questions or explain their votes during the meeting. A motion to table is non-debatable.
So far, nine localities in Virginia have received similar authorization from the General Assembly to issue a referendum since Halifax County proposed the idea in 2019.
Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, made the motions to lay the bills on the table. He has not yet responded to a request for comment about his vote. Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, who represents parts of southern Albemarle also voted against the bills. Runion also has not yet responded to a request for comment.
In testimony ahead of the vote, speakers pointed to the age of Virginia school buildings and backlog of school construction and renovation projects. The state commission on school construction and modernization found that more than half of the buildings are more than 50 years old. Replacing those buildings would cost nearly $25 billion.
“Over the past decade, Virginia school divisions have an increasingly large backlog of needed upgrades,” said Chad Stewart with VEA. “… We have clear evidence from many longitudinal studies at this point, that modern school infrastructure has a direct impact on student outcomes, the health of students and staff and improves teacher retention.”
Other speakers said the school construction projects were a matter of health and safety for students as well as an economic development opportunity.
Lisa Larson-Torres, chairwoman of the Charlottesville School Board, spoke in favor of the bills.
“We’re currently positioned to move forward with an exciting reconfiguration of our middle school,” she said. “We’re in a position now where we do need and are very grateful for your consideration of this option for a funding strategy to allow us to continue as our city is beyond its capacity to fund all of the projects we have on the books right now.”
On Twitter, Hudson clarified that the bills would not have raised taxes for any city or county that didn’t want to take that step.
“The bills simply gave local governments the right to ask their voters for a referendum to fund school construction,” she wrote. “Virginia’s Dillon Rule handcuffs us again, and kids pay the price.”