Fairfax officials seek cross-state suburban coalition to address Virginia’s needs

This was going to be the year that a coalition of Virginia’s most heavily populated regions, stretching in an arc from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads, would finally wrest legislative power from the rest of the state.

Or so Fairfax County officials thought.

But with the Virginia General Assembly’s legislative session past the halfway mark, a familiar feeling of frustration has come over Fairfax County officials who think their region is getting shortchanged again, with no urban or suburban coalition in sight.

“If I were in the General Assembly, I’d be interested in building a coalition with other parts of the state,” said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), chairman of 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 Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) expressed similar frustration 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 expected 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 Bulova (D).

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 county official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official also has to work with the legislature. But another Northern Virginia official said the Board of Supervisors’ periodic bashing of Richmond doesn’t help their cause.

About the only significant victory in the session so far has been a move to return some school 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.

However, the full House voted Friday to restore $24 million, 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 also have 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 meet those duties.

But the concept of the state delegating some control of the roads to localities, known as devolution, is still alive. The House budget contains a provision that would create a work group with the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League and other stakeholders to study devolution and issue a report by October.

What’s more, Fairfax County can’t seem to deliver the votes necessary to deal with issues such as 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 a powerful coalition formed by Northern Virginia and other populous areas 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.”

Republicans have essentially formed a statewide bloc that diminishes Northern Virginia’s clout, as party affiliation trumps regional loyalties. 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 (R-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.”

Still, some saw at least a glimmer of hope in a transportation measure that would alter the representation on the Commonwealth Transportation Board to ensure that the board — which helps decide how state dollars will be distributed — more closely reflects Virginia’s demographics.

Despite strong opposition from rural lawmakers, the bill passed the GOP-led House of Delegates with support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers throughout the urban crescent.

“That bill is a first step of the urban crescent asserting itself,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), a co-sponsor.

But the Senate tabled the measure for next year.

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