Candidate Survey - 2013

THIS QUESTIONAIRE REQUESTS YOUR POSITIONS ON SALT’S TOP LEGISLATIVE ISSUES FOR 2013-14. Your responses will be shared with our members and others via mailings and our website ( ) as a helpful guide in their choice of candidates. Your answers will not be abbreviated or taken out of context. Please return your answers by August 10th by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Thank you for your commitment to public service and for your willingness to share your opinions with SALT.

Candidate: Vivian E. Watts

District: 39 House of Delegates

1.Inflation Indexing of TANF Benefits is a Fairness Issue: Currently, a family of three in Virginia receives a fifth of the federal poverty level and has seen only one TANF increase since 1985. At $269 a month average for a family Virginia ranks 35th in TANF payments. Indexing would prevent further erosion of recipients’ ability to meet basic needs of children in their own home or in relative care and can be funded from the federal TANF block grant. Shouldn’t Virginia take steps to alleviate poverty and to protect families. Strong families are as important to Virginia’s future as schools and roads. What steps would you support to ensure a meaningful level of time-limited assistance to Virginia’s needy families? Please explain.

ANSWER: I would support any means to address this issue.  We cannot expect to foster healthier parenting if the parent has virtually no resources to provide for her/his family.  Such a truly hopeless situation does nothing to break generational cycles that occur within dysfunctional families of mental illness, substance abuse, crime, domestic violence, and/or lack of schooling.

2. Tax & Budget: All Should Pay Their Fair Share. We know from local research across Virginia that the recent State budget cuts have cut into real, quality of life spending by local governments: libraries are closed, police have lost staff positions, teachers have lost their jobs, and class sizes increase for public school students. At the same time, too many (two-thirds) large corporations operating in our State get by with paying very little in corporate income tax due to tax breaks, subsidies, and clever work by their tax lawyers. How will you make sure that individuals and corporations at the upper end of our income scale pay their fair share so that we can avoid painful service cuts in the future?

ANSWER: The percentage of Virginia’s General Fund revenue shifted very significantly to the individual income tax over the last 20 years in large part because of changes in business structures and due to not taxing inter-net sales.  A major change to business taxation is that Sub-Chapter S corporations. Businesses – which may have been taxed under the 7% Corporate Income Tax in years gone by – are now organized as Sub-Chapter S corporations for both tax and legal liability concerns, where the stockholders pay personal income tax on dividends but the S corporation pays no corporate income taxes.  It is rare for Virginia not to conform with the federal tax code and, therefore, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to change Virginia’s taxation of S corporations.  Taxing S corporation profits distributed as dividends will require dealing with the politics of raising the 5.75 percent individual tax income top bracket for all taxpayers – which has become even more politically volatile due to the loss of a Northern Virginia cost of living adjustment for state school funding.  As to taxing internet sales, over the years more and more of the sales tax burden has been shifted to K-Mart shoppers as discretionary high-end purchases are made on the internet. .I’ve strongly supported taxing internet sales ever since Senator Hanger and I were appointed to the Streamlined Tax initiative in the early part of this last decade  Proposals before Congress reflects the work of this national group; however, unfortunately, Virginia’s participation was de-railed by members now in House leadership reflecting tech community concerns.  If Congress does act to authorize taxing internet sales (which I doubt) our challenge will be to fight attempts to use the portion of the resulting increased General Fund and local sales tax revenue as an excuse to make tax cuts elsewhere.  Specifically, there will be proposals to entirely eliminate the corporate income tax, which we must be prepared to strongly oppose and to counter with proposals to achieve greater equity through measures such as strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, which SALT was so instrumental in getting passed.
3. Bring about effective change in the criminal justice system: Those who remain in contact with loved ones on the outside are less likely, studies show, to return to a life of crime after serving their time. So why does Virginia make it so hard for inmates to phone their families? SALT believes that charges should be “just and reasonable”. A small reform, perhaps, but lower rates might help prisoners go straight. What will you do to reform the justice system so communities are safer, victims are respected, and offenders are transformed?

ANSWER: There is so much that I could address in answer to this question.  To reduce recidivism, I believe that the most important reform is to significantly reduce probation staff caseloads so that juvenile/adult offenders are focused on the responsible behavioral changes they need to make and that they get the message that criminal justice system sanctions are to be taken seriously.  Related reforms would increase cooperation between local jails, public school GED and adult education programs, and community drug and alcohol rehabilitation services so that minor offenders serving jail time can carry-through seamlessly when they are released.  The most important reform to prevent the development of violent criminals and the ultimate seriousness of their acts is to fund community mental health services including but certainly not limited to domestic violence and child abuse.  For the existing prison population, as the concern about phone access raises, where family ties exist, they should be supported and should include improving the quality of parent/child contacts.  In addition, prison industries reforms need to target relevant post-release training with compensation that will address the prisoner’s court-ordered financial obligations; drug/alcohol addiction programs need to establish direct community links for each participating prisoner upon release; and sentencing guidelines regarding three strikes and you’re out need to reflect research on the profile of career criminals.

4. Support of Operation Backpack for TANF Families-- This allowance would permit children living in poverty to acquire the needed school supplies and clothing essential for returning to school & equipping children to learn. Would you support to give children in deepest poverty an even start?

ANSWER: Definitely.  40% of the elementary school children in my House district are entitled to Free or Reduced Lunch and 5 of the elementary schools have over 60% of their children who qualify under the federal standard that a family of four is earning less than $43,500 in this high cost of living area.

5. Rescind the Federal Lifetime TANF Ban for Ex-Drug Offenders: Lifting the ban eliminates for ex-offenders (whose offense was solely drug possession) the disqualification from receipt of TANF federal transitional assistance needed to care for family members, increases the chances of gainful employment of ex-offenders. To us lifting the ban is a matter of fairness, as it serves to provide basic Re-entry program services that reduce recidivism and save states money. This ban penalizes children of drug felons. Do we want to be a society that requires children to pay for the misdeed(s) of their parents? Do you support extending the eligibility of ex-offenders for food stamps to TANF benefits as well? Please explain

ANSWER: I absolutely agree with SALT’s position and have tried repeatedly to get a bill or a budget language amendment through the House to remove the ban.  Unfortunately, I have been un-successful.  A number of years ago, we lifted the ban on food stamps because there was no cost to the State - not necessarily because legislators understood the merits of the reasons you have articulated.  Unfortunately, although it is a relatively minor cost to lift the TANF ban, there is little will to fund it and I believe that the bill/budget amendment must be carried by a House Republican who is either in leadership or is on the Appropriations Committee to have any chance of passage.

6. Refundable Virginia State Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): The EITC higher income is pro-work, pro-business because it results in greater productivity and job satisfaction and less worker turnover. It is pro-family as well. SALT supports a Virginia Refundable EITC to enable hard working families to escape poverty. Approximately 570,000 Virginians live below the poverty level. No one working 40 hours a week should be poor. Do you support a refundable State earned income tax credit (EITC) based on 20% of the federal EITC for Virginia low income workers and their families? Yes/No. Please explain

ANSWER: Yes and I will continue to actively support (as co-patron or patron if needed) this important measure which not only increases the progressivity of Virginia’s state income tax but supports personal dignity and financial responsibility.

7. Transportation: The problem SALT sees with the taxes being put in place for funding our transportation needs is that they are regressive, causing low-income Virginians to pay a greater share of their income towards funding transportation. We find it bizarre to burden those with minimum resources for the purpose of making investments in Virginia’s roads. To mitigate the harm, there needs to be steps taken to assuage the pain. SALT recommends a refundable earned income credit or a targeted rebate program. Do you agree with and would you support that approach?

ANSWER: I introduced bills to increase the gas tax every year since 2001.  However, even though I strongly believe that we should not have let non-Virginia drivers off the hook and should have raised the gas tax rather than have increased the sales tax, the most important thing in negotiating the transportation bill was that we were able to prevent gutting the General Fund by over $280 million per year. as the Governor had proposed (not only in 2013 but also in 2012) and many anti-government ideologues strongly advocated.  Such an annual General Fund loss would be devastating to many concerns, but especially social service programs.  As I answered in question 5, I will actively support an EITC; however, I urge you to please be careful about tying the need for an EITC to the transportation funding package.  Depending on the outcome of this fall’s elections, we may have to fight very serious efforts to repeal the new transportation taxes – which, in turn, will be fought by those who know the 27-year backlog of infrastructure need is so great – and we will be right back in serious danger of having the General Fund significantly and permanently reduced.

(As an aside, I must note that the funding accomplishes more than simply being “for the purpose of making investments in Virginia roads.”  The construction and maintenance jobs created will be filled predominately by non-college educated, hourly workers.  And, in addition to increased statewide transit funding, a very significant portion of the new Northern Virginia funding will support transit, which is especially critical for those in low income jobs.)

8. Housing Trust Fund: Virginia has been identified as the 9th least affordable state in the nation according to the "2013 Out of Reach" report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. This standing is based on actual wages and rents in the Commonwealth. Last year, the General Assembly codified a state housing trust fund, joining 45 other states with similar funds, providing one time funding of $8M from the National Mortgage Settlement funds. Given the housing cost burdens faced by a substantial number of households throughout the state, would you support an ongoing source of revenue for the state housing trust fund? This fund would be used to address the significant shortage of safe, decent affordable rental and homeownership opportunities for thousands of low and moderate income families throughout the Commonwealth."

ANSWER: Yes, I would support an ongoing source of revenue for the state housing trust fund, provided trust fund programs are applied with a cost of living factor.  I also believe that the Attorney General’s decision to use so little of the National Mortgage Settlement funds for housing was wrong, but the agreed-upon diversion of the Settlement funds to the General Fund underscores the degree to which General Fund revenue is inadequate.

9. Medicaid Expansion Health Insurance: Expansion for 400,000 low income, uninsured Virginians with federal funding to pay for 100% of the cost for the first 3 years. Expanding Medicaid for a healthy Virginia is the right choice. Do you agree? Explain.

ANSWER: Yes.  Virginia is 48th in the nation in Medicaid spending.  In most cases, we do the minimum required to get federal matching funds.  As a result, we have a very high percentage of low-income adults whose only source of health care is the emergency room.  This drives up costs for all hospital patients, as well as not providing basic care to prevent health problems from getting worse and more costly to treat.  At least 75,000 people below the poverty level in Northern Virginia and 400,000 statewide won’t be covered under the federal Affordable Care Act if Virginia doesn’t expand Medicaid.  While the estimated cost of expansion is $2 billion, it will be covered entirely by federal funds for the first 3 years and 90% thereafter.  As a trade-off, Virginia will save money on payments to teaching hospitals for indigent care, as well as less cost being passed on in everyone’s hospital bill.  In addition, many people receiving mental health treatment entirely through state or local taxes could be funded almost entirely by federal funds.  It also is possible that we could shift some of the cost of prison and jail inmate care.  My understanding is that reports thus far coming from Virginia’s immediate comprehensive study of expansion, which was launched as a compromise at the end of the 2013 Session, support expansion.  Most believe, however, that whether or not Virginia expands Medicaid coverage will depend on the November election.

YOUR ISSUES: What are some issues you feel strongly about that you would like to share with your SALT constituents?

1. Preventing major unraveling of transportation funding.

2. Strengthening community mental health services to prevent the development of the personal and family debilitation that can stem from combat service, to prevent domestic violence and child abuse and to deal with the psychological effects of such trauma, and to provide drug and alcohol abuse counseling.

3. Medicaid funding to establish humane nursing home staffing standards for the 30,000 people in Virginia nursing homes – most of whom are on Medicaid and are the poor for whom SALT would advocate if they were not elderly.  I advocate re-establishing the estate tax on taxable estates of over $5 million, which will effect approximately 30 estates per year (excluding family-owned businesses and farms) and raise over $120 million, $25 million of which would be the state match for the projected Medicaid cost if Virginia were to adopt a minimum staffing of 3.5 hours of direct care per patient per 24 hours (rather than the nationally recommended 4.1 hours that has been demonstrated to prevent physical deterioration.)

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!