Last week we proposed that Virginia use at least $3 billion of the $3.8 billion it’s getting as part of the latest federal stimulus spending bill for school construction.
The rationale — other than the fact that aging schools have reached crisis levels in many communities that are unable to pay for replacements — is that $3 billion matches exactly the amount that the state Senate endorsed earlier this year, but which the House Appropriations Committee promptly deep-sixed.
That $3 billion was in the form of a proposed bond issue — more specifically, in the form of a statewide advisory referendum on whether to issue such bonds. That vote, if it had been approved, wouldn’t have come until 2022, which means the vote to actually issue the bonds would not have come until 2023, which means any actual construction would be years away.
The beauty of this $3 billion is that it’s here now and wouldn’t involve the state having to go into the bond market — which had been a concern for some, such as state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath.
This is essentially free money (don’t think too much about where the money comes from in the first place, but in terms of the state budget, it’s free money).
We have followed politics long enough to understand that doing the right thing usually isn’t a strong enough argument, so we laid out the political advantages that each party could claim.
Democrats concerned about social equity could rightly point out that some of the most egregious examples of what Gov. Ralph Northam once termed “crumbling schools” are in cities with large non-white populations — schools in both Richmond and Norfolk really have had ceilings crumble, in one case hitting a student on the head.
Republicans who represent mostly rural areas also have a disproportionate number of older schools and constituents too poor to pay more taxes; those Republican legislators could point to how they have delivered for their districts and done so without a tax increase.
This should be a win-win argument that unites disparate parts of the state and politicians who ordinarily might not agree with one another. We’re surprised that this coalition hasn’t already come together; for a long time it was state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County , who seemed to be pushing this almost single-handedly in the General Assembly.
Today we’ll lay out some other political arguments in the interest of building a grand coalition.
1. This isn’t just a school construction measure, it’s a job-creation measure. That is, after all, the point of stimulus spending. A model developed by Markstein Advisors, a Washington-based economic consulting firm, estimates that every $1 billion in construction spending creates more than 6,300 jobs.
Now imagine $3 billion worth of school construction underway in Virginia. If that Markstein model is correct, that’s 18,900 jobs.
Construction jobs, by their nature, are temporary, but that’s still a lot of economic stimulus.
Governors get excited when they can announce several hundred jobs; here’s an opportunity to announce thousands.
Then there’s the multiplier effect as those dollars move through the economy. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says the construction industry has one of the highest multipliers around — 3.0195. That means $3 billion in school construction would really turn into $9.06 billion worth of economic impact.
For comparison’s sake, the economic impact of Amazon’s decision to locate its headquarters in Arlington was estimated at $15 billion; the difference is this money would be spread across the state, not concentrated in what is already its most affluent part.
2. The General Assembly could require that in-state contractors get first preference. This will require some clever lawyering but the legislature is full of clever lawyers. An analysis conducted for the Connecticut state legislature point out that in-state contracting and hiring preferences often run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. However, that analysis also found “in general, courts have upheld, against such challenges, carefully designed preferential purchase laws that advance legitimate state interests.” So design it carefully then.
The point here is that, politically speaking, the more this spending benefits Virginia-based businesses, the likely it is that the business community will rally behind this proposal — and we all know how influential business interests can be with legislators.
3. The General Assembly could mandate these new schools be solar-powered. This would appeal to those, particularly on the left, who want to reduce carbon emissions. But it should also appeal to those on the right who are more sensitive to what taxpayers have to shell out.
The solar school idea is not preposterous or even particularly novel. It only seems novel because there are so few of them on the western side of the state because the contract that Appalachian Power Co. has with localities has essentially made them impossible. (That contract will soon be replaced, by the way).
Nationwide, though, there are at least 7,332 schools with some kind of solar power. In terms of actual solar power installed in schools, Virginia now ranks 8th in the country — it’s just that those 89 schools are mostly on the other side of the state.
Middlesex County now generates 100% of its power for its schools through solar energy; it estimates that will save $4 million over 25 years.
Fluvanna County generates 100% of the power for four schools through solar, and 61% at a fifth school. It estimates savings of $4 million to $6 million over 35 years.
Augusta County schools now get 31% of their power from the sun, saving the county $495,000 over 20 years.
That means depending on their politics, a legislator voting to mandate these new schools be solar-powered could claim to be voting for either a major investment in renewable energy — or a tax-savings measure. Both would be true — and would create a coalition between environmentalists and taxpayer groups.
This isn’t an original idea, by the way. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, has already proposed that new schools be solar-powered. Meanwhile, Stanley and Del. Nick Rush, R-Montgomery, sponsored legislation two years ago to make it possible for schools to use third-party developers for solar energy through lease-purchase agreements.
There’s plenty of room on both sides of the aisle here to line up behind this proposal. So who will?