Delegate David Toscano left Charlottesville for Richmond and the 2013 legislative session last week, his campaign coffers well padded with the checks of more than 100 supporters who turned out for a fundraising sendoff dinner at Escafé last Thursday. And he carried plenty of requests with him, too.
For local government, the asks have ranged from the highly specific (amending state law to let the county restrict how many broken-down cars can be parked outside a building) to the broad and predictable (an end to unfunded state mandates). Last week, the big buzz among his constituents as they opened their wallets was the Assembly’s confirmation vote on UVA Rector Helen Dragas, said Toscano. Among those bending his ear here, “it’s nine to one against,” he said.
As his voice has been elevated, so has the importance of the priorities and the checkbooks of his constituents. But this year—his eighth in Virginia’s House of Delegates and his second as its minority leader—Toscano is solidifying his role as chief Virginia Democratic delegate. It’s up to him to wrangle minority support for a platform in a body that’s overwhelmingly Republican, and he has 30 days to do it.
The years-old battle over how to shore up the Commonwealth’s transportation fund is one battleground. The state’s transportation projects are now underfunded by about $3 billion, Toscano said, but lawmakers can’t agree on how to close the gap. It’s the urban crescent that’s bleeding the most, but the trick is getting rural Republicans to agree to help foot the bill.
“Many of them have taken these no-tax pledges, so they don’t support raising any money that’s over and above what economic growth provides to us,” Toscano said. “And I think trying to convince them otherwise is a huge challenge.”
In 2013, all eyes are on the gas tax, which hasn’t been adjusted to match inflation since 1986. Many Republicans see it as an unacceptable tax increase, but Toscano said he sees potential for compromise.
Beyond the Sisyphean task of wrangling minority consensus on transportation, Toscano is planting the party’s flag in a few other major issues. Even after nationwide fury over a requirement that would compel some abortion seekers to get transvaginal ultrasounds resulted in Republicans backing off some of their more extreme pro-life proposals in 2012, some abortion restrictions passed, and Toscano wants Democrats to push to repeal them.
Also on the agenda is legislation that he says will make it easier for Virginians to vote—a progressive answer to last year’s right-backed voter I.D. law. Expect to see measures like expanded absentee voting, and longer voting hours on election days, Toscano said.
Then there’s the debate over lifting the moratorium on uranium drilling in Virginia. Toscano is opposed to ending the ban, saying he wants more convincing evidence it’s safe, but he said it will be hard to predict how the Assembly will vote. Analyst Geoffrey Skelley of UVA’s Center for Politics agrees.
“That’s kind of a fun battle, because the sides are not evenly drawn by partisanship,” Skelley said. Conservative legislators in and around Pittsylvania County, home to one of the world’s largest untapped uranium deposits, are pushing for an end to the mining ban, but many members of their own party disagree with them.
But Skelley said the broader fight in Richmond will continue to be how best to shift existing general fund resources to cover the state’s most pressing necessities in a lean economy.
“You’ll probably get into a spot where Democrats will be fighting the Governor based on the fact that money should be used for things like education,” as opposed to closing the transportation funding gap, said Skelley.
The governor has said he wants teacher pay raises, but Toscano remains wary, and said protecting education funding is one of his main priorities. And he said the still-looming threat of sequestration casts a shadow on any budget discussion. The potential for massive federal spending reductions remains, and that’s bad news for the Commonwealth.
“We didn’t really get any answers,” Toscano said. “Virginia’s ox is about ready to get gored here in the form of very large defense cuts. So we really don’t know the full impact of that until we know how much precisely there’s going to be.”
Meanwhile, everybody back home is hoping to get their money’s worth. Keeping all the balls in the air becomes a big part of the job, Toscano said. “You’re juggling these things and another gets tossed to you, and you try to catch it and move it forward,” he said.