It's Christmas time again, and Northern Virginia's local governments are busily penning their legislative wish lists. But, like the little boy who copied the Sears catalogue and submitted it to Santa, local officials here may be in for some disappointment if they think Richmond is about to grant them everything they want.
Consider Arlington. As the General Assembly's annual session approaches, members of the Arlington County Board are talking about asking their legislators to push for the repeal of a controversial law that blocks local governments from taxing rental apartments at condominium rates. There's only one small hitch: Arlington's own legislators were the ones who sponsored and pushed hardest for the measure in last year's legislative session.
Then there's the suggestion, under consideration by the Alexandria City Council, that the state repeal its sales tax on food and over-the-counter drugs. In a year when Virginia's tradition of balanced budgets is threatened by a $64-million revenue shortfall, chances for that one may be as good as the odds for moving the State Capitol north of the Occoquan.
As Republican state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria puts it: "Anybody who put that bill in would be viewed with some disdain."
The legislative wish lists are all part of the annual ritual, as local officials and legislators dicker over what to request when the 140-member assembly convenes in mid-January. Every year the local politicians draw up a hefty list, most of it filled with housekeeping measures that local governments need to do business.
Under Virginia law, local governments have only the powers that are expressly granted them by the legislature -- which means that the Northern Virginia suburbs regularly must petition the lawmakers for additional authority as they grow increasingly populous and urban.
Those requests -- such as a bill Arlington is considering that would give the county the right to clean up overgrown property -- are seemingly noncontroversial. But disagreements frequently erupt when downstate legislators believe Northern Virginians might get their hands on some power that their local governments covet for themselves.
"The County Board doesn't understand you don't just submit legislation . . . because board members tell you to," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), who has quarreled frequently with the Republican-dominated County Board over legislative initiatives in past years. "You've got to have a shot at it."
For their part, local officials say it's their business to determine what's best for their locality -- not what will pass muster in Richmond, nor what their legislators will support. "I don't think it's our job to drop something because it doesn't have much chance of passing," said Arlington Board member John Milliken, a Democrat who said his county's wish list contains "everything but the kitchen sink."
Arlington and Alexandria will vote on their legislative wish lists within the next several weeks. Only after that takes place will local officials meet formally with their legislators to share views and learn which bills will -- and will not -- get support.
Fairfax County supervisors already have approved a package asking the legislature to raise the legal drinking age to 21 and to allow the county to expand further into the road-building business.
Among the proposals Arlington is considering is a measure that would permit the county to raise its local tax on cigarettes. Similar bills have been killed regularly in Richmond by lobbyists for the tobacco industry, whose product is Virginia's largest cash crop.
Another Arlington proposal is an old standby: the elective school board bill. Since the state stripped Arlington of its elective school board in 1957 after the county announced its intention to integrate its public schools, legislators regularly have turned down county requests to reinstate elections. Supporters are expressing cautious optimism this year, after the bill was killed on the House floor by a narrow vote last year.
As for Alexandria, the city is considering measures that would grant it the authority to require background checks of handgun purchasers, allow it to require smoke detectors in single-family homes, and require property owners to extend relocation payments to their rental tenants when buildings are demolished or converted to commercial property.