Lofty prices for Perriello's bold campaign promises

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com

Pricy campaign promises added up fast in this year's governor's race, particularly for Democratic hopeful Tom Perriello, whose campaign estimates three proposals to cost nearly $900 million.

That would fund a major expansion of Virginia's pre-K program, make community college free and guarantee workers eight weeks of paid family leave, the campaign said.

Perriello also has called for more infrastructure upgrades, a state-backed student loan program, new labor protections and tax credits to offset child-care costs.

He plans to roll out a plan this week to pay for this. Spokesman Ian Sams promised "a progressive tax reform agenda that levels the playing field, while ensuring the wealthy and big corporations are paying their fair share."

That's in line with what Perriello has said on the campaign trail, where he has avoided discussing costs for sweeping proposals and railed against trickle-down theories that say tax cuts produce jobs. The Daily Press pressed the campaign for cost estimates last week after the newspaper's back-of-the-envelope projections quickly passed $1 billion in new spending.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Perriello's competition in the June 13 Democratic primary, has also called for more state funding to cover community college costs and pre-K expansion, as well as a much smaller tax credit program to increase paid family leave in the private sector. His proposals are more gradual, and the campaign laid out costs of less than $50 million last week for the community college and leave programs.

It did not get specific about pre-K, though Northam has said repeatedly he wants that program to grow.

"Making progress every day," was how Northam spokesman David Turner described the approach. "Pragmatic approach to getting things done in Richmond versus lofty rhetoric."

Both candidates support the idea of universal pre-K, though, and Sams said Perriello would obviously have to prioritize his proposals if elected. Given the likelihood that Republicans will still hold a majority in the General Assembly after November's House of Delegate elections, it may be more triage than prioritization.

"I don't know how you get a billion dollars in additional spending through that chamber," said Quentin Kidd, head of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Perriello, Kidd said, "has been more ambitious on the spending side than even Terry McAuliffe was, and McAuliffe was very ambitious," Kidd said.

Like McAuliffe, both Perriello and Northam also support Medicaid expansion, which would draw down billions in federal funding for indigent health care, potentially freeing up hundreds of millions in the state budget for other priorities. Republicans have repeatedly rejected the measure, citing cost concerns.

Both Democrats also support a $15 minimum wage.

Community college

The Perriello campaign figures free community college for all Virginians would cost less than $350 million a year, in addition to what the state spends now.

The estimate assumes a 15 percent enrollment increase.

The campaign is working off different revenue figures, though, than the Virginia Community College System provided to the Daily Press, which put annual in-state tuition paid now at $451 million.

Some $200 million of that, though, likely comes from federal pell grants. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is crunching numbers now to work up a formal estimate for free community college, its spokesman said, a response to other states launching similar programs.

After Perriello made his call for two years of free college, Northam rolled out his own version. It calls for state funding to cover "last-dollar tuition and fees" for any Virginian who wants a training certificate or an associate's degree in one of several targeted areas with open jobs, including cybersecurity and the health care industry.

State figures indicate 59 percent of 2015's community college graduates left without any debt, compared to 37 percent at the state's four-year colleges and universities.

Those who take advantage of Northam's program would agree to one year of public service, which could include working for government, a nonprofit, a small business or in an economically depressed part of Virginia. The campaign puts the program's start-up costs at $37 million.

Perriello has said the public service requirement shows Northam doesn't "get it," because people should move immediately into a regular job and start paying taxes.

Northam said public service is a job.

"They're not going to be doing it for free," he said recently. "So it's a question of who doesn't understand what."

Pre-K

In 2007 the General Assembly's research arm estimated the cost of expanding full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old not already served, a concept usually called "universal pre-K."

The result: Between $115 million and $534 million in 2007 dollars. The range was due to disagreements over the appropriate cost-per-child and guesses on how many families would take up the government's offer.

The estimates also didn't include the cost of constructing new school buildings, but the state often just pays tuition to private pre-K facilities.

The state spends about $70 million a year on its pre-K program now, and the Perriello campaign said another $125 million would cover an expansion to every family up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line. It would also expand the programs reach among 3-year-olds, the campaign said.

The campaign also included figures for a new $70 million investment, saying that would add 18,000 slots to the program. These figures provided Friday marked some of the first cost estimates provided by the campaign. In speeches and literature, Perriello promises to fight to fully fund universal pre-K.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, speaks frequently about the importance of early childhood education. His platform simply promises "to make early childhood education for every Virginia public school student his top educational priority," and he points to past efforts to successfully draw down federal money for Virginia's program.

Both men have said pre-K expansions, and some of their other programs, would pay for themselves in the long run as increased education and job opportunities blossom into less need for welfare spending and prison space. An Economic Policy Institute study from 2008 put the cost of expanding pre-K to all 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds in Virginia at $847 million, but it also predicted the investment would pay for itself in 11 years.

"We're not doing this out of charity to the poor," Perriello said recently. "We're doing this because it makes the entire economy function better and it saves taxpayers money."

Family leave

Perriello has backed a new requirement of eight weeks family leave, paid at two-thirds of a worker's salary.

His campaign put the cost at $430 million annually.

The General Assembly rejected a 60-day paid leave proposal this year. Fiscal analysis put the cost over $600 million a year, paid for by new 0.2 percent taxes both on employee wages and employers.

Northam's campaign said he wants to create an individual and corporate income tax credit to cover a portion of these wages. To show how this would work the campaign pointed to legislation proposed in 2015 by a moderate House Republican, which never made it out of committee.

Under that plan the available credits would be capped at $5.5 million a year, and they'd cover 65 percent of the first $8,333 in salary or wages.

The Republicans

The three Republicans in the governor's race have stuck largely to the revenue side of the budget equation, with frontrunner Ed Gillespie making a 10 percent cut in the state's income tax rate the centerpiece of his campaign.

It would be phased only if state revenues hit certain growth targets, and cost $1.3 billion a year once phased in. The proposal has significant legislative support, including support from budget writers in the House and Senate.

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart went further, responding to Gillespie's plan with an immediate 17.4 percent cut, paid for by asking state agencies to find spending cuts of 5 to 15 percent. He wants eventually to phase-out the state income tax altogether, but has not said how he would achieve this.

State Sen. Frank Wagner has dubbed both plans irresponsible, pointing to Virginia's up-and-down revenue stream the last few years, which required McAuliffe and the legislature to make $1.5 billion worth of changes to the state budget just this year. The state's rainy day fund also has been drawn down.

Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, proposes an increase in the state's gasoline tax to boost highway construction without borrowing so much money up front and recouping costs through decades of tolls.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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