Reality check: 2017 Virginia governor's race


Reality check: 2017 Virginia governor's race

Virginia voters head to the polls to choose the state's next governor on Nov. 7. Amid the attack ads and campaign mailers, WTOP provides a reality check for voters - breaking down some of the candidates' policy proposals.

Three candidates are running for Virginia governor: Libertarian Cliff Hyra, Democrat Ralph Northam, Republican Ed Gillespie. Voters head to the polls Nov. 7.  (The Associated Press) 

    Audio extra: Laura Goren explains how the state taxes income in less than 60 seconds

    What voters need to know about taxes in Virginia this election season 

    by Amanda Iacone 
    All three candidates for Virginia governor are talking about taxes this election season. And it’s about time, says Laura Goren, research director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. 
    She says the state tax code hasn’t been updated since 1986 and doesn't reflect the state's digital economy or the cost to provide services. So what are the candidates proposing and what could it mean for your checkbook?
    Republican Ed Gillespie argues a tax cut and changes to tax exemptions are needed to give a shot in the arm to the state's economy. 
    Democrat Ralph Northam wants reforms to ease taxes on the lowest-earning Virginians and offer targeted tax relief to rural areas. 
    And Libertarian Cliff Hyra wants to make more wholesale changes to how income is taxed and eliminate local business taxes. 
    First, here's some background. 
    Virginia’s top tax bracket — starting at just $17,000 a year — hasn't changed in decades and neither has the top marginal tax rate — 5.75 percent. 
    What that means is an average worker — say a teacher — pays the same top tax rate as a millionaire, Goren said. (Learn more about the difference between a marginal and effective tax rate in our audio extra.)
    "We do need to modernize our tax code in the state," she said. 
    The state's revenue hasn't kept up with the growth in the state's economy in the last three decades — making it harder to pay for basic services, such as transportation, public education and health care, Goren said. 
    On to the details of the plans. 
    Gillespie proposes a 10 percent tax cut to that top rate — bringing it down to 5.15 percent. But he’s not proposing a change to the tax bracket; the top rate would still kick in at $17,000 of income. His campaign says that the cut would save a family of four almost $1,300 a year. He would phase in the cuts over three years. 
    Northam wants to eliminate the 2.5 percent sales tax on groceries — a tax that is shared between the state and localities — saying the tax disproportionately hurts low-income Virginians. He’d also convene a commission to study reforming the state tax code further. 
    Both proposals would save middle-income Virginians nearly the same amount of cash each year — roughly $136 on groceries or $147 in income taxes on average, according to an analysis by the Commonwealth Institute. The benefits for low-income and the wealthiest Virginians would vary widely. (Read the full analysis here.)
    So what do we mean by “middle-income earners?” Those are Virginians earning between $41,000 and $67,000 a year, according to Goren. Incomes tend to be higher in Northern Virginia, however. In Fairfax County, for example, the median household income is much higher — $113,000, according to county estimates. 
    Gillespie argues his tax cut would cost the state $1.4 billion, but future economic growth would make up for the revenue hit. Northam's grocery tax cut would cost the state about $381 million in addition to the $254 million local governments would lose, according to the institute. 
    Hyra is calling to exempt the first $30,000 of income for individuals and $60,000 for married couples before any state income taxes would kick in. The result could save mid-earners about $1,000 a year on average, according to the institute. His proposal could shave $3 billion to $5 billion from state coffers.
    All three candidates also want to reduce or eliminate local taxes that businesses pay on inventory and gross income. State lawmakers have been trying to roll back such taxes for years. 
    So can voters expect that real tax reforms are ahead? Not so fast, says Goren. 
    Many lawmakers and candidates have proposed tax changes in the past, but the proposals have gained little traction, Goren said. 
    Eliminating tax exemptions — sometimes called tax preferences — are typically opposed by those who benefit — such as mortgage holders or hybrid car owners. On the other hand, tax cuts reduce funding the state needs to pay for police, teachers, even doctors and jail guards. And lawmakers have been equally hesitant to raise taxes or create new taxes. 
    While the goal to reform taxes is laudable, tax changes in Virginia can be very hard to achieve, Goren said. 
    Next week: A look at public education in Virginia and the candidate's proposals. 

    What the candidates for governor are saying about education and what voters need to know

    by Amanda Iacone,
    WASHINGTON – Fifty or sixty years - that’s how long today’s high school students will spend working before they retire.  
    The best thing schools can do today to prepare students for decades at work is to teach them to be lifelong learners so they can adapt to changing job climates, said Steve Partridge, vice president of workforce development at Northern Virginia Community College. 
    Virginia has laid out the foundation to redesign high school education that will help address that. But whoever wins the race for Virginia governor in November will face rolling out the significant changes to high school graduation requirements enacted last year. And the state still hasn’t made up for education funding lost during the recession. 
    Partridge said that no matter who wins on Nov. 7, the best way to prepare students for the jobs available in today’s economy is to invest in K-12 education. 
    All three candidates for governor have laid out robust policy proposals for education and workforce development giving voters lots to consider: teacher training and pay, standards of learning, and internships and school vouchers. 
    Here's a look at what voters should know. 

    Career and Technical Education

    Career and technical education is the modern term for vocational education. But it’s not just carpentry or cosmetology anymore. It also includes data analysis, cybersecurity and health care fields. 
    All three candidates are putting renewed emphasis on the importance of career and technical education as part of their education platforms – including the need for apprenticeships and internships and certifications. 
    "We have, for example in Hampton Roads alone, 3,000 unfilled welding jobs. These are great paying jobs, and there's an opportunity here for folks to be able to have a good career path. We need to celebrate these skills in our high schools in the same way we celebrate other academic achievements," Republican Ed Gillespie said during a recent debate in McLean. 
    In Northern Virginia, the welding equivalent might be cybersecurity jobs. As many as two-thirds of all cybersecurity jobs posted in the U.S. are located in Northern Virginia, Partridge said. 
    Many of those jobs, which are generally well-paid, only require a two-year degree or a certificate and a bachelor’s degree. "And we can’t find enough people to fill them," Partridge said. 
    Partridge said schools have become too focused on the “college-for-all-track” and he welcomes the renewed focused on alternate career paths. 

    Staffing and Funding

    Virginia cut more than $1 billion for direct K-12 spending at the height of the recession. This year, the state injected about $800 million back into public education. But per-pupil funding still hasn’t caught up to pre-recession levels, said Chris Duncombe, senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Institute, a progressive think tank in Richmond.  
    “There’s still a long road ahead in finding the political will to support our public education and schools. I think that’s a really important question for the gubernatorial candidates, is if they see themselves as continuing down that path that we started recently in restoring our investment in public education,” he said. 
    Staffing levels dropped across the state in the years after the recession, but staff levels are beginning to rise again. However, average teacher pay in the state is about 12 percent below the national average. And Virginia teachers earn less on average than teachers in neighboring states, such as Maryland and Kentucky, Duncombe said. 
    Another round of pay raises could help reverse that trend, he said. 
    Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam are both calling for an increase in teacher pay and are talking about teacher training and recruitment – especially for rural or disadvantaged schools that have a hard time keeping teachers. 
    They differ in one area, however. Gillespie has proposed education savings accounts that, similar to vouchers, would help students and their families pay for private education. Also, he would make it easier to create charter schools. 
    Northam, who currently serves as the state’s lieutenant governor, has pledged to support traditional public schools and wants teachers to have a greater say in policies developed at the state level. 


    Virginia Standards of Learning continue to evolve, requiring fewer tests for students, but the benchmarks for each grade level and subjects remain. 
    Northam described the SOLs as “broken.” 
    “We are teaching children how to take multiple choice tests when they should be thinking creatively,” he said during a debate last month. 
    He’s defended recent efforts to reduce testing and update the SOLs.
    Gillespie also wants to reform the SOLs so that they measure students’ progress, not just whether they meet the standards or not. 
    “We need to have accountability,” Gillespie has said. 
    Duncombe said voters should question, however, how the candidates would pay for their investments. 
    “All of the campaigns have put out fairly ambitious pledges for public education,” Duncombe said. “Yet they’ve also called for fairly significant reductions in the resources the state will have to make those priorities.” 
    Libertarian Cliff Hyra, an attorney, is also running for governor. 
    Coming next week: What the candidates say about unlocking the region's congested roads.  

    Candidates for Va. governor have similar positions on transportation: What voters need to know

    by Amanda Iacone,
    WASHINGTON — Want a big, new, shiny project to help unclog Northern Virginia's congested roads? 
    You won't hear any such promises from the candidates for Virginia governor. Instead, they are calling to build on the successes of the past two administrations, which created new cash for road and transit projects and saw the spread of express lanes in our region.
    "It’s been surprising to a lot of observers that transportation hasn’t been as big of an issue in this race as it has been in previous races," said Kevin Heaslip, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. 
    National issues such as immigration and health care seem to be dominating the campaign conversation, he says. 
    Why is transportation taking a back seat? Heaslip has two theories. 
    One:  The new cash — thanks to landmark legislation passed in 2013 — sets up both candidates, and the state as a whole, in a good position to tackle maintenance and other larger projects in the next few years, Heaslip says. 
    Two: "They seem to have a very similar approach to how transportation should be funded, what priorities should be made — and what areas that need investment," he said.  "Depending who gets elected — I don‘t think there will be a lot of difference in the policies that come out of each administration."
    On to the specifics. 
    Republican Ed Gillespie, for example, wants to extend the 95 Express Lanes from Stafford County to Richmond and would explore how similar private-public partnerships could be used elsewhere in the state. 
    Gillespie has said that he would not support a tax increase for Metro until the transit agency's governance is reformed and until it can operate reliably. His position hasn't changed. 
    "Virginia already provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year for our Metro system. Before considering any more money for Metro, we need to reform it first," campaign spokesman Dave Abrams said in a statement to WTOP.  
    Democrat Ralph Northam said he would push for long-term funding, not just one or two years’ worth of cash, this upcoming legislative session. "We can't wait," he said. 
    Metro is facing up to $15 billion in repairs to replace tracks, power systems and even trains that haven’t been replaced or updated since the system opened more than 40 years ago. Leaders in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. have not settled on a plan to pay for that deferred maintenance work, which should have begun in 2006. 
    Northam has also emphasized his support for the 2013 transportation funding bill — which has provided much-needed billions to pay for road, bridge and transit projects. The law also gave Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads the ability to leverage some tax dollars for regional projects  — money that was used locally to widen Route 28
    This summer, Gillespie criticized Northam's support for that legislation, calling it a tax increase. Since making those statements in July, his campaign has rolled out its official transportation platform, which states that he would not roll back the new revenue the law created. His pledge to uphold the funding helped, in part, to earn him the endorsement of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. 
    Northam was endorsed by the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, an industry group that represents 300 companies and contractors working on Virginia road and infrastructure projects.
    Still, to Heaslip's point that transportation is sitting on the back burner, Northam didn't publish a transportation platform — instead including a few lines in his technology plan. He defended that, saying transportation and infrastructure, even the fate of Metro, are critical to maintaining the state's economic edge and that he's been talking about his transportation vision on the campaign trail.  
    So what else do the candidates agree on? The importance of the toll and express lanes projects along Interstate 66 and the need to address train traffic, not just congestion on the state’s roads.
    Even Libertarian Cliff Hyra has similar proposals, calling for more tolls and public-private partnerships. Read more about his positions here

    What the candidates for Va. governor would do to boost jobs and wages

    Amanda Iacone,
    WASHINGTON How Virginia voters view the state’s economic health could determine who will serve as Virginia’s governor for the next four years. 
    Democrat Ralph Northam, the state’s current lieutenant governor, paints a rosy economic picture noting that unemployment has plunged in the last four years and the state has added jobs during that time. 
    According to Republican Ed Gillespie, the state is underperforming. He says the state’s GDP has dropped, wages have stagnated, and more people are leaving the state than moving here. 
    So which is it? 
    Virginia's economic reality lies somewhere in between. 
    James Koch, an economist at Old Dominion University, explains.
    “The growth rate of our (gross domestic product) has been lower in Virginia than the nation for five or six years in a row. The good news is that it appears that this year, that’s reversing,” Koch said. 
    Three major sectors of the state economy – defense, tourism and housing – are rebounding, he said. 
    Federal and related spending are beginning to recover after the Great Recession and severe spending limits under sequestration are likely to be eased or removed, Koch said. 
    He predicts that the state’s economic outlook will improve even more next year.  

    He credits Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is barred by term limits from running again, for actively promoting the state and trying to diversify the economy. But Virginia’s four-year terms give the state’s top leader, whether a Democrat or a Republican, little time to make much of a dent on the economy. 
     “The really big elephant in the room is sequestration and defense spending. If the lid is taken off of that, then Virginia is going to boom,” he said. 

    Virginia’s unemployment rate has dropped since McAuliffe took office – it’s now 3.7 percent – and the state’s labor force has grown, along with the population. But, it’s true that more residents left the state than moved here from 2012 to 2015, according to the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.   
    Meanwhile, household incomes have grown by close to 2 percent each of the past two years, according to Census data, but that lands Virginia in the bottom half of states for the rate of wage growth.  
    And the state has rebounded somewhat in perception, moving up on business rankings such as CNBC’s Top States for Business, but has not regained the top slot once seen under former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. 
    Meanwhile, other states have recovered more quickly from the recession because they aren’t as dependent on federal spending, he said. 
    Also, the mix of jobs created in the recovery – such as service jobs – hasn’t helped to replace the $100,000 in benefits and wages that government and contractor jobs in the D.C. area typically offer, Koch said. 
    Koch said the best thing the next governor could do would be to nurture small businesses – firms that will grow, adding jobs and value in the future – rather than investing in what he called “splashy” economic development projects – such as hotels or arenas.
    Both candidates have plans to help support small business growth – from reducing red tape to easing taxes. Both would also expand access to broadband internet.
    Here’s a quick rundown of some of the candidate’s other proposals. 
    Gillespie would:
    - Cut income tax rates 10 percent – the heart of Gillespie’s economic platform. He says lower taxes will stimulate the economy and generate more tax revenue to pay for basic services. 
    - Reform and reduce what he calls “burdensome” regulations and licensing requirements, and would halt clean power regulations being written by the McAuliffe administration 
    - Reinstate the coal tax credit to support the coal industry 
    - Support developing natural gas pipelines, which he said would ensure reliable, affordable energy 
    Northam would:
    - Offer free community college tuition to students taking classes in key in-demand fields; would require they give back by working for the state, a nonprofit or move to an area where their skills are needed 
    - Support a tax credit for small businesses that offer paid family leave
    - Push for policies that support diversity to attract workers and business. "We need to be open, we need to be inclusive.”
    - Increase production of wind and solar energy in the state; supports the natural gas pipelines but wants rigorous environmental review and has concerns about property rights. 
    Libertarian Cliff Hyra also is running for governor. Read more about his proposals here.   
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