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Editorial: The important votes last week that got overlooked

Editorial: The important votes last week that got overlooked

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We did more last week than vote on who the next president should be. Here are two other things that haven’t gotten as much attention as they deserve:

1. Rural counties dig deep for schools. Five rural localities in Virginia voted on whether to raise sales taxes by 1% to pay for schools. All five said yes — Charlotte, Gloucester, Henry, Northampton and Patrick. In some places, the vote was close (Charlotte was 52% to 48%). Other places it wasn’t (Northampton was 71% to 29%). This is significant because one of the great issues facing Virginia is the poor physical condition of many schools, particularly some in rural areas. The General Assembly has shown only limited interest in addressing this. We’ve had Democratic legislators in Northern Virginia ask us — with a straight face — why rural localities aren’t doing more to fix their own problems. That’s easy for those legislators to ask — Northern Virginia is home to some of the most affluent communities in the country. They can afford to raise their own taxes. It’s a lot harder to squeeze money out of some of the poorest communities in the state. Yet here five communities did just that. (And Pulaski County did so three years ago to pay for its new middle school.)

There are two ways to look at these five referenda to raise taxes for schools. One, these votes give Northern Virginia legislators an easy out: “See, we don’t need to help rural Virginia. It’s taking care of itself.” Or, these votes show that rural voters are, indeed, quite interested in the state of their schools so that ought to quiet those who suggest they’re not. Under that view (which we prefer), those counties voted not just to raise actual capital but also to raise some moral capital in the state’s ongoing debate over disparities in school funding. In effect, these rural counties can say: “See, we’re doing all we can and it’s still not enough.”

Thought experiment: If these counties had voted down the tax proposals, Northern Virginia legislators — whose mercy we’re at — could easily say those communities don’t really care about their schools, so why should anyone else? That’s one downside of the widening gulf between the politics of rural Virginia and the politics of the urban crescent. Politically speaking, why should any Democrat care about a rural Virginia that is moving further and further away from the rest of the state? (Yes, you can argue that it’s urban Virginia that’s moving away from rural Virginia but the reality is both urban and rural areas are moving away from each other — the Trump vote increased in rural Virginia, the anti-Trump vote increased in urban Virginia.)

In theory, help is on the way. Voters in Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk all approved casinos. Here’s why that matters. Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam persuaded the General Assembly to agree to devote some of the state’s share of the casino tax revenue to school construction. The catch is it may be years before those casinos actually open and years after that before they build up enough of a revenue stream to allow the state to sell school construction bonds — using those annual revenues to pay them off. In the meantime, governors and legislators will come and go and the more time goes by, the more temptation there will be for some future General Assembly to undo this year’s pledge. We’re about to enter a new election cycle — for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the House of Delegates. Voters in both rural and urban areas ought to ask candidates from both parties whether they intend to uphold that school construction promise — and whether they have any ideas on how to speed things up.

2. Marijuana was a big winner on the ballot. Four more states — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — all voted to legalize marijuana, bringing the grand total of legal weed states to 15. The notable thing here is that these represent a mix of states — one liberal, two conservative, one in-between. Marijuana may be one of the few things that unites voters across the political spectrum. Most of these voters weren’t even close. In New Jersey, 67% said yes. In Arizona, just under 60% said yes. In Montana, 57%. Only South Dakota was somewhat close, with 53% voting in favor of legalization.

Here’s why this matters to Virginia — there’s a good chance we might be next. Earlier this year the General Assembly decriminalized marijuana and some are already talking the next logical step: State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, tweeted back then: “Legalization next year!” Well, next year is almost here. Attorney General Mark Herring was considered something of a risk-taker when he proposed last year that Virginia start “moving toward legal and regulated use.” It’s clear from other states that voters are way ahead of the politicians on this issue. It’s clear there are no real political risks for politicians to be in favor of legal marijuana, and perhaps lots of political advantages.

Here’s another reason why this matters to Virginia: Tax revenue. Tobacco is heavily taxed. Marijuana will be, too. Montana’s referendum to legalize weed also included a 20% tax. Colorado and Washington are the nation’s two biggest marijuana states. Last year Colorado collected a record $302.4 million in pot taxes; Washington state collected $395.5 million and based on sales so far (the pandemic has been good for pot) both will far exceed those totals. Some believe Washington state may hit $500 million in tax revenue.

Virginia is 900,000 people bigger than Washington, population-wise, and 3 million people bigger than Colorado, so if Virginians lit up at the same rate, our tax revenues should be more on Washington’s scale than Colorado’s. We don’t know how long it would take Virginia to scale up to those levels. You know how Virginia is about anything new. It also depends on how Virginia would regulate marijuana. Some states allow localities to block dispensaries — would we? And how would we use that revenue? There will be many hands reaching for those dollars — but rural areas who have complained about school disparities should be among the most insistent. There’s also the question of where and how the stuff would be grown. Will there be open-air farms or will only grow houses be allowed? Either way, there are business opportunities here.

Make no mistake: Virginia is about to debate marijuana and, based on what other states have done, the Old Dominion will legalize weed.

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