Editor’s note: In his Jan. 25 column, executive editor Dwayne Yancey wrote about how Virginia has more people moving out than moving in, with the bulk of that net out-migration driven by Northern Virginia. He wrote that Governor Glenn Youngkin has cited Virginia’s tax policies as the reason and wrote: “I haven’t heard anyone advance an alternative theory. It would be nice to hear Democrats offer their own explanation for these migration numbers because something sure seems to be happening here.” Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax County, sends this response:
Mr. Yancey, I frequently take time to read your entire columns because they are based on solid factual analysis and long Virginia experience. I always come away richer for the time spent and I’ve learned a lot about the many aspects of the challenges surrounding Southwest in your ongoing discussion of demographics. THANK YOU.
I decided to respond to the invite in your 1/25/23 opinion: “Youngkin says it’s because other states have low-tax policies that are driving more economic growth, but I haven’t heard anyone advance an alternative theory. It would be nice to hear Democrats offer their own explanation for these migration numbers because something sure seems to be happening here.” Here’s my perspective on the out-migration from NoVa:
- For years, in poll after poll of Northern Virginians, the number one reason for leaving or thinking about leaving is congestion. Perhaps, Gerald Baliles was too thorough as the transportation governor, but for almost 30 years nothing was done. Finally, in 2013 – with NoVa roads ranked the most or the 2nd most congested in the nation and the state construction program non-existent for almost a decade as funds were diverted to maintenance – the General Assembly acted. There was basically no increase in state funds in 2013, but NoVa was authorized to raise its own transportation funds. It wasn’t until 2020, that state transportation funding finally was increased, and the gas tax restructured to rise with inflation so it would track increases in labor, structural steel, and in the cost of asphalt (a petroleum-based commodity.) It is worth noting that the Fairfax out-migration started in 2013, when conditions were so bad that we finally got bi-partisan, statewide consensus to act. Indeed, decades of inaction let conditions get so bad, it will take us a long time before congestion won’t be the #1 reason people want to leave NoVa.
- Yes, as you observed, the lack of affordable housing, for all but the top 20% in income, is also discouraging.
- In addition, housing affordability is part and parcel of NoVa’s overall high cost-of-living. Virginia has the greatest spread in cost-of-living of any state, except California. Cost of Living in Virginia, SALARY.COM, If people can move out of NoVa and work remotely, their income will go a lot further and their standard of living improve.
- NoVa’s high cost-of-living is woven into another reason for families not staying in Fairfax County: extraordinarily high class sizes in every grade from kindergarten through high school. My son’s family recently moved to Virginia Beach where my middle elementary school granddaughters are doing much better in classes of 22-23 kids than in the classrooms of 30+ they’d had in Fairfax since kindergarten.
- The reason high cost-of-living and high class sizes are related is tied to the state school funding formula. The computation of local ability to pay is not tied to local ability to raise tax revenue. Forty percent is driven by a locality’s AGI [adjusted gross income], even though localities can’t tax income. This is particularly challenging for counties, who until recently couldn’t even tax discretionary spending (such the meals tax and transient occupancy tax) as every city and town has been able to for 100 years. The real estate tax rate can only be raised so much to come up with 3 dollars for every 1 dollar we get in state school funding. The more we’ve had to increase real estate taxes, the more we drive out retired folks.
- Businesses/corporations also pay real estate taxes. As real estate taxes in this region have been driven up, it is a greater disincentive to economic development than the corporate tax rate. The Tax Foundation 2023 State Business Tax Climate Index ranked Virginia as having the 17th lowest corporate tax rate but only the 29th lowest real estate tax – and NoVa’s real estate taxes are certainly higher than that state average. On this measure alone, cutting state taxes that – then – have to be replaced locally to fund essential services is not a way to attract employers. Investing in business-ready sites throughout Virginia is. Investing in transportation is. Investing in higher education (that attracted Amazon HQ2) is. Investing in needed skilled credentialing is. And, investing in the most essential element of quality of life: K-12 public education is.