Northern Virginia officials predict power shift from rural areas

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; B01

Now that the General Assembly's annual session has concluded, many Northern Virginia public officials assessing its impact on the region agree at least on one thing: It could have been worse.

And it's almost certainly going to be better after the next U.S. Census.

At least that's the hope of many Northern Virginia officials, who expect that the regional balance of power in Richmond will finally tilt from its rural counties to its more urban and suburban areas.

Faced with a $4 billion budget gap this year, lawmakers demonstrated an almost monomaniacal focus on money, or the lack of it. That heightened regional tensions, especially over a key school-funding formula known as the Local Composite Index that became the single most critical issue for Northern Virginia lawmakers.

Republicans and Democrats in Northern Virginia fought to reverse a proposal by outgoing Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to freeze the formula, known as the LCI. The index, which measures an area's wealth and its ability to fund its own schools, showed that the recession had diminished Northern Virginia's fortunes enough that it deserved more money for schools.

Under Kaine's proposal to freeze the formula at earlier levels, however, Northern Virginia's school divisions stood to lose $138 million, with Fairfax County alone reduced by $61.2 million. His proposal would have helped 97 school divisions with a total $114.6 million in funding while depriving 40 districts of $143.8 million.

The campaign to unfreeze the school-funding formula brought together Northern Virginia's business community, educators, PTAs and homeowners associations, along with lawmakers from both parties. Some Republicans joined Democrats in threatening to vote against the entire budget unless the freeze was undone.

"When we got here and found the governor's freezing of the LCI, it was not only a disaster, it was a disaster of monumental proportions," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax).

At mid-session, however, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) agreed to unfreeze the LCI, eliciting sighs of relief across Northern Virginia.

"I'd say on the education side, I think the news is way better than we thought it would be in the beginning," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D).

But this, too, was a mixed bag. In agreeing to unfreeze the school-funding formula, McDonnell also pushed to hold harmless all the districts whose funding would suffer under the newly adjusted funding formula -- giving them for one year the same amount of money they would have received if the formula had not been unfrozen. Northern Virginia officials say his decision to cushion the blow for other districts shortchanged under the new school funding formula means that there will $174 million less in the state budget that could have helped Northern Virginia in other ways.

"That's less money for us because we're not being held harmless," said Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax).

The state's budget also cut generalized financial support to localities by $120 million over the two-year budget cycle, which could result in a reduction of as much as $15 million for Fairfax, Bulova said.

Transportation, one of the issues that most bedevils Northern Virginia, received scant attention. "Nothing meaningful got done that I could see," Petersen said.

The Senate, for example, approved a modest attempt to boost the fuels tax by pegging it to increases in fuel-efficiency standards. The idea was to counter the fact that better miles-per-gallon ratings translate into fewer tax dollars at the pump. But that bill, sponsored by Sen. Emmet W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) was tabled by the House Finance Committee until next session. And, the budget approved on Sunday cuts about $40 million over two years in competitive grants for transit projects, Bulova said.

Although McDonnell has told lawmakers that he might call a special session of the General Assembly to address transportation needs, Petersen said he wondered whether it would be able to accomplish much in the current environment. "Until the anti-tax crowd steps back and shows some flexibility, there's no point in a special session."

Some Northern Virginia lawmakers were also busy fending off efforts to restrict local governments' taxing authority. Others battled moves to give builders more leeway over a local government's authority to control new development. Attempts to shift the transportation formulas more heavily in Northern Virginia's favor also failed.

But several Northern Virginia lawmakers and officials say they see change in the offing.

After more than a century of domination by Virginia's rural interests, dramatic demographic changes will force the redistribution of political muscle to the urban-suburban Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions that power the state economically, several officials said. This could have big impacts on educational, transportation and other funding formulas whose importance seemed even larger during a 61-day session focused on balancing the budget by cutting spending without raising taxes.

"What you're seeing to a great extent is kind of the last gasp of the Virginia of the 20th century," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington). "We're going to have a census and we're going to have redistricting next year, and what it's going to show is a major shift toward the urban, suburban and exurban portions of the state and away from the rural Virginia of the past."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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