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Gov. Northam’s Proposal to Study a Statewide Fee on the Millions of Tons of Out-of-State Trash Dumped in Virginia Appears Dead For Now

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On August 25, the Virginia Mercury reported that “Gov. Ralph Northam has signaled he intends to revive an old debate about how much out-of-state trash Virginia accepts by including in his administration’s budget proposal an order for the state to develop a plan to require landfill operators to pay a statewide tipping fee for solid waste.” According to the Mercury article, “Virginia accepted more than 4 million tons of out of state trash in 2019… largely from Maryland, Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey and North Carolina…just over a quarter of Virginia’s solid waste in 2019, totaling 5.78 million tons, came from out-of-state.” And, the Mercury article added:

Virginia’s tipping fees have remained low compared to many other states over the years. A 2018 survey by industry research group Environmental Research and Education Foundation found that on average, companies paid tipping fees of $53.48 in Virginia, below average payments in mid-Atlantic and New England states but above those found in the Southeast.

An additional statewide fee would drive up that figure, likely making Virginia less attractive to disposal companies. 

[…]

Northam’s budget proposal to conduct a study of such a fee now would call for a report to be issued by Nov. 1, with the administration telling the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Monday that it would present the results for lawmakers’ consideration in January.

So, whatever happened to this idea? From what I’m hearing, the proposal to study a “tipping fee” appears dead for now, in part due to lobbying by waste disposal companies. If it really is dead, that seems unfortunate, as this could be a relatively pain-free way to raise some revenues – tens of millions of dollars per year, potentially – for teacher pay and other priorities. Also, from what I’m told, every state bordering Virginia – including “red” West Virginia and North Carolina – has a statewide “tipping fee” for solid waste, so it’s not like this is some radical idea. And again, the reason states like New York and New Jersey haul their trash to Virginia is because it’s relatively *cheap* – in part because our state has no “tipping fee.” Finally, note that landfills are often placed near communities of color and poor communities, so there’s an environmental justice aspect to this.

More broadly, the question is how Virginia can raise revenues to pay for critical priorities, if options such as increasing “tipping fees” are taken off the table. And if we’re not going to even consider relatively easy options like “tipping fees,” then is there any chance we’ll be looking at bigger sources of revenue – the estate tax (which used to raise around $120 million per year, before it was foolishly repealed in 2007), for instance, or higher tobacco taxes or whatever – anytime soon? Now, obviously, almost nobody likes paying taxes, and they’re considered a political liability by many Democrats (since Republicans are sure to hit them on any tax increases in the next elections). BUT…we *do* have to fund necessary government services *somehow*, and last I checked, money doesn’t grow on trees.

By the way, for those who are unaware, the major expenses in the Virginia budget are overwhelmingly education and health ($22 billion *each* in the FY2021 budget, or about two-thirds of the $67 billion in total operating expenses). That means that underfunding the budget means hits to teacher pay, “at-risk add-ons,” school infrastructure, pre-k education, and…Medicaid, which makes up a huge chunk of Virginia’s overall health budget. So that’s basically the choice – raise sufficient revenues to adequately fund teacher pay, Medicaid, etc…or don’t do so, and live with the consequences. At the minimum, it seems like adding a statewide fee on trash dumping, one that our neighboring states have and that could raise tens of millions of dollars, would be something to at least study.

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