CDN Editor: Three candidates are in the race for Virginia’s 27th District which includes Clarke County, Fauquier County, the City of Winchester, Frederick County, and a portion of Loudoun County, Stafford County and Culpeper County. This is the first of three articles in which the candidates respond to issues of specific interest to the residents of Clarke County, Virginia. This interview was conducted in person with Senator Vogel at her office in Winchester, Virginia.
Senator Jill Vogel
CDN: Clarke County has long had the most active conservation easement programs in the area. Proponents of conservation easements say that easements reduce costly tax payer requirements to support residential sprawl. Opponents says that the program is simply a tax shelter for the wealthy that unfairly shifts the tax burden to small property owners and makes it difficult for new businesses to enter the county. What grade do you give Clarke County’s conservation easement program and why?
Vogel: I give high marks to Clarke County’s conservation easement program. And I absolutely dispute that it’s some kind of a tax shelter for the very wealthy. It has meant that many, many people who want to protect their agricultural land or want to protect their farm can do so. Because of the disproportionate burden that arises from real estate taxes, who bears that disproportionate tax burden? Well, guess what? It’s shouldered by people who own lots of land and who owns lots of land? Farmers do. And what is the pressure on farmers who own big tracts of land? It’s to survive. Many farmers are struggling to survive because of the cost of running the farm plus the heavy burden of those real estate taxes. Different communities decide that they want to grow differently and different land use tools are available to different localities for different reasons. Clarke County has made a long term decision that they want agriculture to survive. And in every way it is sustainable and so many of the legislative issues that I have worked on have been exactly around this whole notion of being incredibly careful with critical land use planning. Clarke County’s easement program has had an enormous impact.
CDN: Clarke County’s affordable broadband access is largely limited only to its population centers. While options like satellite and WIFI exist, such service is expensive, slow and often unreliable making it difficult to operate rural-based businesses that require Internet access. Do you have plans to address this problem?
Vogel: My big complaint is that I cannot believe that I live as close as I live to the Nation’s capitol – one of the biggest technology centers in the world – and I have no access where I live – none, zippo – to cable television or to the Internet. Right now I have to have a microwave repeater on my roof that gets a signal from my neighbor’s house. But if it’s windy or rainy or foggy guess what happens? No service and I pay hundreds of dollars a month because I have to run a business and so much of my legal business is done from my home.
The way that you fix it is universal broadband and you also create some unbelievable incentives for businesses to do it themselves because here’s the problem; Right now we’re in this big fight over pole fees and so it becomes a cost benefit analysis. The companies that have the ability to bring the Internet to us are literally two miles away. There’s absolutely no excuse, but as a cost benefit matter, there aren’t enough end-users and the pole fees are very, very expensive and the people who own the poles want to lease them at an unbelievably high rates according to the people who are arguing about it. Therefore, it isn’t cost efficient so no business is going to lose money and nobody is going to come in and be a do-gooder and help Jill Vogel get Internet because they could care less whether I have Internet or not and they could care less whether it’s affordable or not. The problem is that it has a huge impact when you consider that jobs and that the economy is the biggest issue that we have in my district right now.
We have a very, very weak economy with not enough job growth and not enough opportunity for businesses to expand. A big part of the solution is that you have to have a skilled workforce and you have to have a good education. What kind of an education can you get if you’re a kid and don’t have access to the Internet?
The answer is broadband and I think that the Commonwealth will have to invest the resources where businesses won’t. It’s a two part solution; first we give incentives and tax breaks to go into rural parts of the state that are underserved. Or if Virginia has to just lay out the money itself, we have to do it.
I plan to introduce a bill on the issue in this session. I just don’t see how you can have integrity on the larger discussion about jobs and the economy and transportation and tele-working without addressing Internet access. It also ties into the transportation problem because a lot of people could work from where they live if broadband were more available.
CDN: Clarke County’s education programs have seen significant cuts in funding from the Commonwealth. Elected school officials have said that there is a direct link between declining student performance and education program funding cuts. Has Virginia’s education funding dropped to the point where it is
negatively impacting student learning? If so, what message are we sending to our next generation of Virginians?
Vogel: I think that we are perilously close to the edge and I think that while we had to be very mindful in the most recent budget negotiations about sharing the burden equally. I am very sensitive to this issue as a mom of school aged kids. We made cuts in education and, as painful as that was, I didn’t support those cuts and I absolutely didn’t support the cuts when we underfunded VRS (Virginia Retirement System.) I voted against my governor’s budget for that reason. But I will say that I am practical enough to know that when there’s no money and we have a balanced budget requirement, if you do the short term hard things that you have to do recalibrate, that puts you in a better position going forward to negotiate your budget. And it proved to be the right thing to do. If you look at where Virginia is we’re still the number one best place to do business even though our economy is weak and our job growth is poor and teachers are struggling and our state employees are struggling, it’s still nothing like California. You look around the Commonwealth and consider where we are and then you consider where California is and look at all of these other states that are bankrupt and can’t afford to pay their state employees, that have had unbelievable layoffs, their pension funds are bankrupt, the states are bankrupt. We’re a whole lot better off.
We’ve done our job in maintaining where we needed to be and in fact we came back with a modest amount of revenue that was stable enough that we had more than we expected. Last year’s legislative session was about higher education – making it more accessible and more affordable. This year’s focus has to be on K-12 from a budget standpoint. We talk a lot about jobs and the economy but that is necessarily tied 100% to how strong our education system is in the Commonwealth.
The Composite Index is something that I’ve worked really hard to address every year, because again, counties like Clarke that have land in land use see a disproportionate negative impact based on the resources that come to them because of the land use quotient. But the bottom line is that if you want to get good teachers and keep them here, it all goes back to funding. There’s no question that when you starve public education of course student performance is going to drop. To say that there would be any other outcome is just ignorant. You’ve got to pay for schools, you’ve got to pay for technology and you’ve got to pay for quality teachers.
CDN: The Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to implement new measures meant to protect the Chesapeake Bay. In Clarke County, these measures likely will place higher costs on local farmers. Similarly, Virginia Power has won approval to place a new power plant near Shenandoah National Park even though opponents argued that the power produced in the plant would largely be used in New York and New Jersey. How should local citizens view the costs and impacts associated with regional and national environmental issues like the Chesapeake Bay and acid rain mitigation?
Vogel: We all have an obligation to be good stewards of our natural resources and Clarke County has a great history of doing that. Clarke County is a template for what good stewardship can generate. However, that said, there has to be a balance and you have to consider that if the burden is carried disproportionately by agriculture and farmers who are least equipped to pay for it then that’s an enormous problem. So it is the responsibility of policy makers who want to incentivize good outcomes and good policy to also consider that we have to have some kind of a safety net. But we have to have some kind of relief for those who bear most of that burden. I think that the answer is that we all need to share the burden for good stewardship – for clean air and clean water – but yet we also, as policy makers, have the responsibility to not have all of that responsibility placed on one sector of the economy.
We have to come up with some kind of resource that will provide farmers with a way to survive through this policy. If you go to the Farm Bureau and talk to all of these people who are the leading stewards of good environmental policy you learn that they’re also the ones who are saying “Uncle”. We really have to have some kind of relief here and I can’t fathom a scenario where I can support turning my back on those folks and just saying “I’m sorry, it’s just too bad.”
There are a finite amount of resources available for providing relief so it’s just a question of priorities. The money is there. When you look at the billions of dollars that go into state spending, and we also have access to all kinds of federal programs for good land stewardship and natural resources. In fact, there’s a whole lot of private sector money that’s available also. I would say that we ought to be looking at every opportunity not just a tax increase which at this point no one is going to tolerate. I don’t know a single person in any party out there saying “This is the year that we need a big tax increase.”
CDN: With commercial development to the south in Warren County, commercial zoning to the west in Frederick County and the availability of a sewage treatment facility from the Virginia Corrections Department, many citizens see Double Toll Gate as a natural location for expanded commercial use. Yet the Clarke County Supervisors have decided that the cost of providing water and sewer to the area is simply too expensive for the County to underwrite.
Do you see a role for your office in facilitating inter-county discussions that could improve the economic health of the region?
Vogel: There’s always a role for my office in doing that. We’ve done it between Frederick and Winchester, we’ve done that for lots and lots of localities. That is one of the greatest opportunities that I have as a legislator who, at a macro level, represents a big regional area of a community and can put those pieces together. It’s largely driven though by the underlying focus of what the locality truly wants. If my localities want a process and an opportunity to participate together and they’re looking for state resources to help make that happen then I will always be available and be excited to help. There are economies of scale in this type of collaboration – there’s all of this opportunity for cost savings when communities are willing to share the costs and share the resources and share the revenues.
CDN: Of the candidates that you’ve heard so far, who do you believe has the best chance of winning the 2012 presidential race? Who do you support?
Vogel: I have not committed in this race. What I do in my day job is that I represent lots of organizations, lots of non-profits and charities and all of these people who want to influence the issue environment in and around the elections for a certain policy outcome. So I have been very circumspect and I think that there are strengths and weaknesses in all of these candidates. My observation is that, in what has been a very unconventional primary process, we are far, far into it without a major front runner, a person who every single republican says ‘Now that guy’s got soul, I’m all in for him’. There’s a lot of intensity but it’s really diffused across a wide number of candidates. I don’t think that while the conventional wisdom is to pick the guy who came in second last time, because the Republican party is very orderly, that would mean that Romney cannot be beat because of the vast investment and resources and infrastructure and ground game and organization that has cost so much money. For someone else to come along and reinvent that and catch-up is almost impossible. But if you’ve been running for six years and you are so anemic that people like Chris Christie, who has hardly stuck his big toe in the water, or Rick Perry who dropped out of the sky five minutes ago, or Herman Kaine beats you in Florida, what does that tell you? We’re struggling right now to find the person with the whole package.
CDN: With five children, three legislative offices a law practice and being a senator do you ever have any time by yourself?
Vogel: Never, never, never, never, ever! There is no private space ever. I always think about it incrementally though. You get through the busiest times because you always think that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – at the conclusion of the legislative session, or when the budget is finished, or when redistricting is over. For me, because I had a unique leadership role in my caucus this year in terms of negotiating redistricting, there was an unbelievably intense period of time where I was literally working 24-hours a day. But I can’t stop my other work either – I can’t stop being a mom during those 24 hours and I can’t stop servicing my clients and doing my day job. I remember thinking that when this [the last legislative session in Richmond] is over I’m going to get to go home and read a book and take a shower and just do something incredibly fun. But it just seems to never end, there’s never a break. But I love it. What I don’t what to do is wake up at the end of my life and say ‘It was just such a blur and I didn’t really get to enjoy it.’