What about pensions, school choice? VA lawmakers ignore big issues this session


MISSED A SPOT: The Virginia General Assembly’s focus on a few key issues left some others in the dust.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — With Medicaid and mental health dominating Virginia’s legislative session, lawmakers left a few important issues in the dust.

When it comes to tax dollars and free markets, here are the top three missed opportunities for progress.

Pension reform

The Virginia General Assembly made a few feeble attempts this session to address state employee pension issues, but nothing to make a real dent in the woefully underfunded system. Lawmakers passed a bill that ensures former justices can’t receive more than 100 percent of their salaries in retirement.

Still, the General Assembly missed out on an opportunity to further reform the retirement system, which has unfunded liabilities of around $80 billion, according to one analysis by the think tank State Budget Solutions. To look at it another way, VRS has about 41 cents for every dollar it’s obligated to pay its 600,000 members.

As of 2011, state employees contribute 5 percent of their salaries towards retirement, but the state still operates assuming a rate of return of 7 percent on investment, and many critics say that just isn’t safe.

As Virginia’s top auditor said when she took the job in early 2013, public pensions are the top fiscal issue facing the commonwealth.

School choice

Virginia doesn’t have a very open mind when it comes to methods for K-12 education, and 2014 was no exception. Lawmakers offered no more alternatives for opening up charter schools in Virginia, even though the state has just a handful of charters and gets an F from the Center for Education Reform on its charter laws.

A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that nearly 70 percent of those surveyed support charter schools, but there are lots of hoops to jump through for anyone hoping to start one in Virginia.

Charter schools aren’t the only form of school choice that went all but ignored this year. Lawmakers also killed bills that would have offered tax credits for homeschooling families who don’t benefit from the public school system, but pay local and state taxes to support public schools anyway.

The General Assembly did vote to expand the availability of online learning through Virtual Virginia to school divisions around the state.

Decreasing dependence on Washington

As Watchdog.org has reported in the past, Virginia relies heavily on neighboring Washington, D.C., for jobs and other forms of federal spending. Researchers at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center have pointed out that Virginia’s relatively low unemployment rate would be no better than the national average if it weren’t for Northern Virginia’s Washington-centered economy.

Still, lawmakers have talked little — and done even less — to tackle this issue this year and make Virginia’s economy less dependent on the federal government. How do you do that? Mercatus experts say it’s best for government to stop picking and choosing winners with tax preferences, for starters.

Critics of Medicaid expansion might add that relying on the feds to pay 100 or 90 percent of the tab for up to 400,000 more Virginians doesn’t help the commonwealth become more independent either.

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

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