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Barker hopeful Assembly can produce more local school funding

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Barker hopeful Assembly can produce more local school funding

When the General Assembly reconvenes in January, Northern Virginia may receive a bit of a financial windfall as the state government receives more money than it initially anticipated.
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) on Monday released amendments to the 2012-2014 budget showing revenue growth of 3.6 percent for fiscal year 2013 and 3.8 percent for the following year.
What that means locally is there is potentially more money for education spending next year.
State Sen. George Barker (D-39th), who represents parts of eastern Prince William County as well as parts of Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria, explained during a phone interview on Friday that area schools next year were not originally set to receive as much money during the second year of the budget cycle compared to the first year.
That first year of "deferential funding," which adjusts school spending in areas with higher costs of living, gave Northern Virginia schools an extra $30 million compared to its downstate counterparts.
However, the FY 2014 budget only called for an extra $12 million as McDonnell prepared for less money coming into the state coffers.
"I think we should be able to get that at least $18 million," said Barker, discussing amendments to the state budget. "There's actually some justification for going higher than that."
Prince William County is home to the second largest school system in the commonwealth, trailing on Fairfax County.
The county also has less of a commercial tax base than other Northern Virginia localities, which implies that state funding is needed to help make up for a lack of revenue produced locally in the county itself.
"This deferential makes a big difference for us," said Barker.
When it comes to securing more money, he stressed the importance of Prince William County being home to state Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-29th), the dean of the upper chamber who lives in Nokesville.
Colgan is serving his 10th four-year term in office and is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, giving him a direct say in how money is spent in the commonwealth.
"I don't think people can understand the benefits we get from him being there in that position," said Barker. "His relationships with the other legislators are great."
Meanwhile, the second-term state senator from Clifton said he also expects enough funding for the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Falls Church so that it can operate at full capacity instead of reduce its number of operational beds from 129 to 110.
"I'm very optimistic with that," he said.
On transportation, Barker is tentatively supportive of the governor's proposal for indexing the gas tax to inflation.
The gas tax rate of 17.5 center per gallon has not changed since 1986 despite the cost of living increasing, which means its buying power is less now than it was 26 years ago.
While indexing may be popular in the state Senate, which features 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, the GOP-dominated state House of Delegates is likely to balk at such an offer.
"There are a number of legislator who are going to be resistant to taxes, even for transportation, even if it's an indexing sort of thing," said Barker. "I'm not sure we're going to be able to get it through this year but I'm very pleased that the governor" supports it.
In 2008, Barker backed a plan that would increase the sales tax in Northern Virginia with money from that going straight to transportation projects in the region.
Voters in 2002 rejected a regional referendum that would have increased the sales tax designed to fund specific transportation projects by about $5 billion.
Barker cited problems with the projects themselves rather than the idea of a tax hike as being the reason for its 54 percent to 46 percent defeat, though he conceded that it's not the duty of the citizens to make those sort of decisions.
"That's our responsibility," he said of the legislature. "The public elects us to" do that.
As for funding future transportation projects, Barker backs the idea of toll roads like the new HOT lanes in Interstate 495 but rejects tolling any of the state interstates like McDonnell proposed for I-95 at the North Carolina border, saying the public would be "paying for the road twice."
Locally, "part of the problem with that is, practically, there's almost no way to put tolling on 95 or 66 because of its impact on transportation," said said, referring to the part of 95 above Fredericksburg.
As for bills Barker himself is working on, he said he is teaming up with state Del. Rich Anderson (R-51st) of Woodbridge to ban texting while driving.
"There is overwhelming public support for that issue," said Barker.
While distracted driving is already an offense, sending text messages from a cell phone is a secondary offense instead of a primary offense.
In short, police officers cannot pull anyone over strictly for texting behind the wheel but they can charge them for that in addition to another criminal act performed while driving.
What Barker proposes is making texting while driving a primary offense. Just having that on the books also should curb the behavior, he said.
"They're much less likely to do it," added the senator.
On other issues set to be addressed by the General Assembly, Barker expects:
-a number of legislators who voted against confirming Tracy Thorne-Begland, the openly gay prosecutor rejected by the state House this past year for a judgeship, to rethink their decisions this time now that he's been appointed to the General District Court bench;
-politics between Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) over the gubernatorial race should not affect the 45-day legislating period as long as Bolling does not decide to mount an independent candidacy since he dropped out of the GOP race;
-the legislature will address lengthy lines at polling stations this past November during the general election.
"I think one of the things that we need to speed up is the shift from the electronic voting machines to the optical scanning machines," said Barker.
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