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Devolution All Over Again

Will localities have to pick up a greater responsibility for funding roads?

In this column, I made the assertion a couple of months ago that the Commonwealth of Virginia was shirking its responsibility in funding its share of public school K-12 budgets.  I wrote that the state has a responsibility under the constitution to fund 55 percent of the cost of public schools but is providing only 41 percent of the costs. 

The Richmond Times Dispatch “PolitiFact” checker reviewed the “facts” behind my statement and by changing the word “responsibility” to “requirement” found the statement to be false.

Their argument was a technical one that the state needed to fund only 55 percent of Standards of Quality (SOQ) related costs with which it had complied.  They ignored my contention that SOQ costs are a small share of public school costs, and the SOQ standards are revised downward as the budget is reduced.  All public schools find it necessary to exceed SOQ’s in order to successfully operate their schools.

In the most recent issue of Virginia Towns and Cities, the journal of the Virginia Municipal League (VML), the Executive Director of the VML, Mike Amyx, entered the debate between me and the Times Dispatch. Amyx found that “PolitiFact assessment of delegate’s K-12 funding statement is flawed.” 

As he wrote, “The point that Del. Plum correctly made is that the state does not recognize what it actually costs to educate students and to meet state accountability standards, such as the Standards of Learning…Prior to the recession the state devoted 35 percent of its general fund budget to public schools. Today, post-recession, the state’s general fund support has dropped to below 30 percent… the state’s 41 percent share of meeting K-12 education costs is woefully inadequate… if you rate Del. Plum’s statement against reality, it is absolutely true."

The devolution of state responsibility for funding an equal share of education
costs with localities to the localities having to pick up a greater share of the costs is about to happen in another area of state responsibility if early discussion around the Capitol are to be believed. 

In a recent meeting of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton observed that cities in the Tidewater and Central Virginia areas maintain their own streets.  He raised a question as to whether or not all localities should be required to maintain their streets and secondary roads. Currently, cities and towns and the Counties of Henrico and Arlington receive urban street payments from the Department of Transportation to maintain their streets and highways.

 Since the Secretary’s comments came in the midst of a discussion of what the Governor intends to do to deliver on his promise to provide more monies for transportation, a feeling of concern was felt by those who know how the highway funding system works.  If the responsibility for maintaining highways was simply shifted from the state to localities under the current urban street formula of funding, there would be no net gain in revenue for the state.  Since the urban formula seems to be more generous than the secondary road system of funding, there could actually be a net loss to the state when the state Department of Transportation is already woefully short of funding.

With devolution as being discussed, localities may pick up a greater responsibility
for funding roads but without the funds to meet their costs.  Would the state dump the responsibility for maintaining secondary roads on localities without providing the necessary money?  The experience with school funding suggests yes.  By altering school standards to meet budget dollars, the state claims it meets its obligation but does not provide adequate monies in reality to meet actual costs.  Localities get left holding the bag.  The same could clearly happen with roads.  Looks like devolution all over again!

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