Fairfax County’s message to its state delegation for the 2012 General Assembly session sounds more like the Hippocratic Oath than a legislative agenda.
“Our request is to do no harm,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) told legislators last month.
County officials hope to avoid cuts in their state funding and fend off proposals that would shift state responsibilities, such as road construction and maintenance, to local governments.
The county also is concerned about getting sufficient state education funding and maintaining its current levels of authority over land use and taxation, said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), the board’s legislative committee chairman.
This marks the first year Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is able to propose a complete biennial state budget of his own, rather than amending the budget set by his Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine.
Although the state’s fiscal outlook has improved somewhat compared to recent years, McDonnell’s $85 billion budget plan for 2012-14 includes cuts in some areas to allow him to invest more in his top priorities, such as economic tax credits and incentives. He also has proposed a significant investment in shoring up the state’s underfunded pension system.
The budget fight is shaping up to be a highly partisan one, with local Democrats decrying the governor’s proposals and Fairfax County Republicans saying he is on the right track.
“The governor has ducked our major problems, proposed cutting public education and health care for low-income children, and [is] continuing to invest taxpayer dollars in luxuries like tax credits for billionaire movie producers, winery owners and other donors,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon).
Dels. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) and Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), on the other hand, said there isn’t money to do more without tax increases, which they oppose. McDonnell’s budget is “a great step in the right direction” because it focuses on the core functions of government, Hugo said.
How to improve transportation in the state, particularly in Northern Virginia, is another perennial battle that likely will resurface during this year’s session. One new twist is the concept dubbed “devolution.”
Some state officials, including Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, have proposed that localities assume responsibility for the maintenance of local roads, potentially freeing up scarce funds for larger projects.
Fairfax County and other local governments, including Loudoun and Prince William counties, have said they plan to fight the proposal in the state legislature.
Although Fairfax actually was considering assuming control of its roadways in the recent past, county officials say the maintenance costs would overwhelm their budget. Officials said they also have little confidence the state would kick in enough additional funding to support local road maintenance.
County staff members estimate it would cost at least $100 million a year for the county to maintain its roads. The county already is working to close a projected $114 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2013.
“The cost is a very scary reality,” McKay said, noting that the additional costs could harm schools and other local needs.
Members of the county’s legislative delegation, including Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), said they are prepared to try and stop cost-shifting from the state to localities.
Some legislators, such as Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), have said they plan to introduce options to try and address transportation funding. Watts said she again plans to introduce a package of tax and fee increases that would generate new transportation funds for Northern Virginia, although she noted she is not optimistic about its passage.
Albo said he wants to focus on correcting the state’s deficit in its transportation maintenance fund, as state transportation officials have had to increasingly shift construction dollars to cover maintenance needs.
In addition to the big picture issues, there are some smaller items on county officials’ radar for the 2012 session.
The county likely will request state authority to increase its local hotel tax by 2 percent to generate funds to support construction of a new conference center in Tysons Corner. The current rate is 4 percent. The measure has the support of local hotel operators, said county officials, who met with hoteliers to gauge support before bringing the proposal to Richmond.
Fairfax also likely will try to fend off proposed legislation from within its own delegation regarding local control of water rates.
In December, the Board of Supervisors approved a measure that will set a standard water rate countywide starting July 1, no matter which utility serves a given customer. The cities of Falls Church and Fairfax and the town of Vienna all serve customers outside of their boundaries and charge higher rates than the county’s utility, Fairfax Water. The county’s action also set Fairfax Water as the default service provider for new connections in the county.
State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), whose district includes Fairfax City and Vienna, said he will introduce legislation to stop the county from interfering with surrounding water utilities. He said he sees the county as trying to illegally interfere in a contractual relationship that it is not party to. Some other local legislators have said they will consider backing Petersen’s bill.