Candidate Survey - 2015

THIS QUESTIONAIRE REQUESTS YOUR POSITIONS ON SALT’S TOP LEGISLATIVE ISSUES FOR 2015-16. 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 21st 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:      39HD
1. Closing The Health Care Coverage Gap for Low Income Adults – Virginia has the opportunity to use available federal funding to offer Medicaid health insurance coverage to up to 400,000 very low-income adults. Most are working in important job sectors such as retail, tourism, and construction, but unable to get affordable health insurance from their jobs or from the federal marketplace. Federal funding (which pays for 100% of the costs through 2016 and gradually reduces to 90% in 2020) would support Virginia hospitals, create jobs, and save state dollars currently supporting many health programs. Thirty states (including West Virginia and Kentucky) and D.C. already provide this coverage. Do you support closing the coverage gap? YES Please explain.

The most compelling reason to close the coverage gap is to address the suffering and the wasted potential of Virginians whose basic health needs and preventative care aren’t addressed.  Such disregard has gone on for decades -- as clearly indicated by Virginia always being near the bottom in Medicaid spending per capita because we don’t go beyond minimal federal requirements.  It also doesn’t make economic sense.  As the Virginia Chamber pointed out, “Virginia businesses will incur $16.4 billion in ACA-related taxes” and need “to take control of $15 billion of its federal tax dollars and put them to work for Virginia.”  We’ve not only left the much-needed, significant funding on the table which we would get under full expansion, but measures to narrowly address the most egregious needs also don’t make budgetary sense.  This year, for example, instead of expanding Medicaid to 400,000 under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we brought 21,600 severely mentally ill adults having less than $10,000 income, dental care for 45,000 poor pregnant women, and 35,000 additional children under Medicaid.  The problem is that providing these services under traditional Medicaid funding will end up costing Virginia taxpayers $85.6 million more than providing them under 90% federal ACA funding.

2. 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.

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. In addition to being aware of such outcomes because the poor rural area where I was raised, my involvement with Virginia’s prisons as Secretary of Public Safety, and the child abuse and neglect cases we handled during the 7 years I was Executive Director of Fairfax CASA, my House district has over 40% of its children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Not only is $269 per month completely inadequate, but because there is no cost-of living adjustment in the federal definition of poverty, families in this area of Fairfax who actually qualify are in extreme need compared to elsewhere in Virginia or the nation.

3. Corporate Tax Breaks:  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?

The percentage of Virginia’s General Fund revenue shifted very significantly to the individual income tax over the last 20 years in large part due to changes in business structures and to not taxing internet sales. Many 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. Since it is rare for Virginia not to conform with the federal tax code, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to change Virginia’s taxation of S corporations. The alternative of simply increasing taxes on S corporation profits distributed as dividends will require dealing with the politics of raising the 5.75 percent individual income tax 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 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) who reflect tech community concerns. If Congress does 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.

4. 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 telephone charges should be “just and reasonable”. A small reform, perhaps, but lower rates might help prisoners go straight. Do you support lower phone rate to reestablish contact between offenders and their families and ultimately to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders?


5. Support of Operation Backpack for TANF Families -- 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. Help Give School Supplies and Hope—a simple backpack can change lives. Would you support to give children in deepest poverty an even start?

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.  

6. 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-drug offenders for food stamps TANF benefits as well? Do you support extending TANF eligibility for ex-drug offenders who return to their families and take responsibilities for their families? Please explain.

I absolutely agree with SALT’s position and tried repeatedly to get a bill or a budget language amendment through the House to remove the ban. Unfortunately, I ‘ve 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.

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

1. We must strengthen community mental health services to prevent development of the personal and family debilitation that can stem from combat service, to prevent domestic violence and child abuse and deal with the psychological effects of such trauma, and to provide drug and alcohol abuse counseling. In addition, de-institutionalization without actually providing services in less restrictive environments has created three pressing problems: addressing homelessness which exacerbates mental illness, providing relevant crisis intervention training for law enforcement, and funding jail diversion options.

2. Virginia is one of the few states that have no nursing home staffing standards. Because of cost, I have long advocated a minimal standard of just 3.5 hours of direct care per patient per 24 hours (rather than the nationally recommended 4.1 hours which has been demonstrated to prevent physical deterioration.) Even this minimal standard, however, requires a $25 million increase in state funds for additional Medicaid costs of more staffing. The added cost demonstrates how far below 3.5 hours current staffing is for many of the 30,000 people in Virginia nursing homes, producing conditions that are particularly dismal for the 70% who are Medicaid patients and under Virginia’s tough Medicaid requirements cannot do at least two of the following:  feed themselves, walk or get up unaided, dress, bathe, or are incontinent. The $25 million could easily be raised by re-establishing a Virginia estate tax to mirror the federal tax on taxable estates of over $5 million (excluding family-owned businesses and farms.) The tax would be on un-taxed capital gains of the deceased and would affect only about 30 estates per year. It would raise over $120 million -- $25 million of which would be a true godsend to the 30 thousand people in nursing homes.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!