High-tech industry officials are prodding gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Donald Beyer and Attorney General James Gilmore to boost spending on education and transportation, but both candidates are veering away from publicly supporting programs that could require new taxes.
The calls for increased spending are coming from industry executives and industry groups such as the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the Northern Virginia Roundtable and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
"Education is the No. 1 issue," said Ed Bersoff, president and chief executive officer of BTG Inc., a systems integrator based in Vienna, Va.
Although existing education funds might be spent more efficiently, "we have to find other sources of revenue [to boost education, and] ... there is only one source of revenue. That is, the taxpayers," Bersoff said.
Education "is important to the business up here ... [because] we don't graduate enough people in math and science," said Todd Stottlemyer, a vice president at BDM International Inc., McLean, Va.
"[High-tech] companies do not have fixed assets, they have human assets. ... If you don't invest in these assets, they may go elsewhere," said Doug Poretz, founder of a local investor relations firm, The Poretz Group in McLean, Va. For example, poor schools for their children and annoying traffic jams could prompt skilled engineers and entrepreneurs to transfer to more hospitable regions, he said.
"Without a first-class system of education, Virginia will continue to lag behind other regions economically," said Mike Daniels, a vice president at the Tysons Corner unit of Science Applications International Corp., and a vice chairman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. The council's membership includes 600 high-technology companies.
Executives acknowledged that taxes are unpopular among voters, but argue that the candidates should not exclude them from consideration. "People are prompted to say they'll pay more [in taxes] if the money doesn't go into the general treasury [but goes] to education and transportation," said John Tydings, director of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The Northern Virginia Roundtable has issued papers calling for greater state investment in transportation, technology and education, said H. Martin Haley, its director. The Fairfax, Va., group is now working on a statement of principles for the candidates to accept or reject, said Haley.
But the candidates are trying to balance industry's calls for spending against often competing demands from other industry sectors, and from the voting public, including suburbanites, farmers and parents concerned about their children's education.
"People in the information technology industry [are] important in the political process. ... But Virginia is a very broad community, based on many economic endeavors. It has to be looked at in a broad view," said Gilmore. On June 11, Gilmore will resign his job as attorney general, in which he represents Virginia agencies in disputes with businesses and the federal government.
Gilmore has promised to spend the next four years phasing out the voters' $1 billion bill for automobile-property taxes - providing that the education spending is increased as economic growth boosts the state's tax revenues.
Democratic candidate Beyer initially suggested he would use state funds to pump billions of dollars into education and transportation improvements, but now says he wants to increase investment in education and transportation, and that he will not raise taxes to pay for such investments. He has also promised to cut taxes on some small corporations.
"I want to be governor of all of Virginia. I will work closely with the poultry farmers and manufacturers. I also understand the most exciting part of the economy that is creating the next and best jobs [is the information technology business]. ... I want to make sure that no part of Virginia is left out of the information age," said Beyer.
As lieutenant governor, Beyer presides over debates in Virginia's Senate, and casts a tie-breaking vote if the 40-member Senate is deadlocked during the 45 or 60 days that it is in session every year.
Beyer's no-new-tax statement was a disappointment to the Northern Virginia Roundtable, especially because it was followed by a similar commitment from Gilmore, said the group's chief lobbyist, Hollister Cantus.
Both candidates have received funds from Northern Virginia's high-tech industry. According to Beyer, the industry may generate $2 million dollars for candidates by election day in November.
A May poll of 812 registered voters showed Gilmore marginally ahead, with support from 43 percent of voters, compared to Beyer's 41 percent, with 16 percent of voters undecided, and an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percent. But the poll contains good news for Beyer; he leads Gilmore by 19 points in Northern Virginia. The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research.
Aside from their difference over Gilmore's call for cuts in property taxes, and Beyer's call for a boost in teacher salaries, both candidates share several common goals desired by the high-tech industry.
Both say they want greater investment in education and also want to curb business taxes. Both candidates say they will implement a new law creating a state-level chief information officer and both support Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology, which is a state-backed center that provides advice and some funds to high-tech companies.
Beyer also says he wants to provide the high-tech industry with a 35 percent tax break for money spent on worker training, and work with local government to help build office parts in southern Virginia. Also, the governor should "offer as much leadership as possible to expand access to capital," said Beyer, backing expansion of a program that provides state backing for small-business loans, Beyer said.
Given their overall similarity, executives look for clues to the candidates' policies by examining their statements and personal backgrounds, said executives.
Beyer co-founded the Northern Virginia Technology Council in 1991, boasts a long list of friends in the high-tech industry, including Bersoff, and stays in contact via e-mail. "Beyer has been building relations with high-technology business leaders for a long time. ... Politics, like business, is relationships to a large degree," said Poretz. Also, "Beyer just shows a higher comfort level with technology," he said.
Thus high-tech executives are concerned that a Gilmore victory would ensure that conservative social issues, such as online pornography, will frame Virginia debates over the future of high technology, said Poretz. Those debates would hinder industry's concerns, such as expanding students' access to the Internet, he said.
In response to such concerns, Gilmore points to the Attorney General's Technology Council that he formed in May 1996 to cement his relationships to the high-tech industry, and emphasizes that he oversaw the deployment of computers through Virginia's office of the attorney general.