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Delegation's Power Loss Blamed on Ideological Split

Divided Region Claims Few Wins In 2005 Session

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page PW05

The 2005 General Assembly session offered very few regional victories for the Washington suburbs, local officials said recently, but it did illustrate a widening philosophical chasm dividing Northern Virginia lawmakers.

Attempts to continue use of surveillance cameras to catch red-light runners and efforts to increase the motor fuel tax in Northern Virginia to raise money for public transportation failed during the session, which ended Feb. 27. A major infusion of money for the region's roads and rails was not considered, and lawmakers settled on a smaller transportation package.

"The General Assembly did leave us hanging in some really important areas . . . particularly with transportation," said Sean T. Connaughton (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a candidate for lieutenant governor.

Local officials said the defeats of their most important initiatives indicate that Northern Virginia has diminished as a regional power. It is unable to push through local priorities even though the region continues to be the main economic engine for the state.

Several officials attributed the decline in influence to a split between conservative lawmakers from outer suburban jurisdictions and centrist or liberal legislators from the inner suburbs. That has diluted the power of the delegation, which rarely meets to discuss issues that affect all its constituents, officials said.

"The delegation is . . . divided more by ideology than by party -- that's the fault line," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The divide played out in the debate last month over red-light cameras, authority for which is set to expire July 1. Five bills in the Virginia Senate and several others in the House of Delegates that would have extended or eliminated the expiration date were all turned back in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee. The technology is supported by all Northern Virginia jurisdictions and was one of the top priorities for several of them.

Several of the bills were sponsored by Northern Virginia Republicans and supported by the region's Democrats on the committee, who said the technology was a pragmatic law enforcement tool and essential for public safety.

But Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R), who represents parts of Prince William and Fauquier counties, sided with rural lawmakers from Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, who said the cameras infringe on people's rights.

"There is a place for technology in law enforcement, but we need to balance this against a timeless criteria, which is the preservation of liberty," Lingamfelter said.

The split in the delegation's views also flared in a debate over how Arlington County and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church developed rules about affordable housing. Democrats said the requirements, which have allowed local officials to seek a certain number of affordable units from builders who want to create large developments, are reasonable solutions to an acute public problem: the high cost of housing in the Washington suburbs.

But Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) and Del. Gary A. Reese (R-Fairfax) sponsored legislation that challenged the jurisdictions' housing practices, saying they were unfair to developers.

"The 'Arlington Way,' in this case, is illegal," Reese said in fighting for the bill, which was eventually tabled after the two sides had worked out a compromise.

The localities will no longer be able to use the same affordability practices but will work with developers to devise other guidelines.

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