Whatever happened to the idea of creating a grand coalition of Virginia’s heavily populated Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions to finally wrest power from the rest of the state?
Some Fairfax County officials are wondering.
“If I were in the General Assembly, I’d be interested in building a coalition with other parts of the state,” said Supervisor Jeffrey C. McKay (D-Lee), who chairs the Board of Supervisors’ legislative committee. “[But] I haven’t heard of it. I’m very disappointed. I think it’s a lack of leadership.”
Supervisor Patrick S. Herrity (R-Springfield) expresses similar frustrations that talk about forming a coalition of the urban crescent has been just that, talk.
“If we’ve done that, I haven’t seen the effort,” Herrity said. “Back then we didn’t have the votes. The difference is, now we have the votes.”
Northern Virginia was supposed to finally be able to flex its muscle as one of the state’s most populous and economically vibrant regions. Following the decennial census two years ago, Northern Virginia’s suburbs gained seats in the Virginia General Assembly, while southwestern Virginia and other rural areas lost. The realignment was supposed to deliver more legislative power to the fast-growing urban and suburban arc that includes Northern Virginia, Richmond’s suburbs and Hampton Roads.
But it hasn’t happened that way. Party politics and micro-regional divisions have continued to dilute Northern Virginia’s clout.
“There certainly is division even among the Northern Virginia delegation,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D).
Of course, the antagonism between Northern Virginia, or NOVA, and the Rest of Virginia, or ROVA, has been around for a long time. Conservatives in rural areas delight in bashing Northern Virginia liberals about as much as Northern Virginia’s blues like to take pokes at ROVA reds.
“Sometimes I think the goal of Republicans in Virginia is to keep Northern Virginia on the run,” said a Fairfax County official, who asked to speak anonymously because the official also has to work with the legislature. The disconnect is so great that Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said this week that he gets along better with Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly than he does with members of his own party. But another Northern Virginia official said the Board of Supervisors’ periodic bashing of the General Assembly doesn’t help their cause.
With the annual legislative session more than halfway finished, Fairfax County officials express a familiar frustration that their region is getting shortchanged. About the only significant victory in the session so far has been a move to return some schools funding to Northern Virginia that sweetens salaries for support staff so that their pay is competitive with other school workers in the region.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) $85 billion budget would have clipped about $65 million in cost-of-competing funds for schools’ support staff over two years, including a $24 million cut for Fairfax County. Loudoun County’s loss was about the same, and Prince William County would have taken a $22 million hit over two years.
On Friday, however, the full House voted to restore $24 million in a welcome, if partial, victory for Northern Virginia. Earlier, Senate Democrats restored $42 million in their version of the budget bill before it died in the deadlock over that chamber’s power struggle.
Northern Virginia political leaders have also been heartened by a Senate provision in the omnibus transportation bill that would index the gas tax to inflation, thereby generating more revenue. And they were glad to beat back an attempt by the state to cede control of local roads to heavily populated counties without a clear stream of funding to match those responsibilities.
But the concept of the state delegating some of its road duties to localities, known as devolution, is still alive. The House budget contains a provision that would create a workgroup with the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League and other stakeholders to study devolution and issue a report by October 2012.
Fairfax political leaders also lost the legislative battle against a constitutional amendment on eminent domain that they believe could complicate redevelopment in aging suburban areas. That measure now goes to voters. What’s more, Fairfax County still can’t seem to deliver the votes or the funds necessary to deal with issues such as a need for more transportation funding.
“I guess the most disappointing thing for me — and this is not a partisan comment — is this administration ran on a platform of delivering more resources for transportation,” Bulova said. “I believe in my heart this is something Governor McDonnell wanted to achieve, and here we are halfway through his term, and where is it?”
Toni-Michelle Travis, a politics and government professor at George Mason University, said the promise of powerful regional coalition formed by Northern Virginia overlooks the importance of differences within the region.
“Up here, the people in the inner and outer suburbs just don’t see the world the same way,” Travis said. “Transportation would be an issue across this area that should bring them all together. Nothing happened.”
What’s more, Republicans have essentially formed a statewide bloc that diminishes Northern Virginia’s clout, as party affiliation trumps regional loyalties on all but a few issues, Travis said. So until someone from the inner suburbs takes over as House of Delegates speaker, Fairfax County will probably continue to meet with frustration, she said.
For now, however, the GOP’s most powerful post in the state legislature belongs to Speaker William J. Howell, the Republican from Stafford.
“That’s the outer suburbs,” Travis said. “I don’t think the rest of Northern Virginia would say he’s really from Northern Virginia.”
Del. Thomas D. Rust (R-Fairfax) sponsored a bill with a lot of bipartisan support that would have rejiggered the representation on the Commonwealth Transportation Board to ensure that the board — which helps decide how Virginia Department of Transportation dollars will be distributed — more closely reflects Virginia’s demographic makeup. To do this, HB864 would have amended the residency requirement of the 17-member board so that seats would be based on congressional districts rather than the nine VDOT highway districts created decades ago.
The measure has been proposed in one form or another for several years. But this year, despite strong opposition from rural lawmakers, the bill came through the GOP-led House of Delegates. The vote was 51 to 45, with support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers throughout the urban crescent. But the measure was tabled for future consideration in the Senate.
“That bill is a first step of the urban crescent asserting itself,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), a co-sponsor.