The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As GOP takes over Richmond, local officials in deep-blue Northern Virginia start to worry

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R) greets supporters at his election night watch party in Chantilly earlier this week. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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After Republicans swept Virginia’s statewide elections this week, many local Democratic lawmakers in the state’s most reliably blue region have entered a state of worry.

The mood in Northern Virginia days after the election is a stark contrast from the past two years, when the Democratic-controlled General Assembly managed to push a wish list of liberal policies through Richmond for the first time in a generation. That era appears to be coming to an end with victories for the GOP, which took all three statewide offices and appear likely to take the majority in the House of Delegates.

Now, with the prospect of only the state Senate in Democratic hands — and by the thinnest of majorities — many liberal officials in the D.C. suburbs are fretting that the red shift could bring bad news for their more locally focused agendas on the climate, public transit and other issues that took less of a spotlight during the campaign.

Analysis: How Youngkin shifted the vote toward Republicans across Virginia

Virginia is one of 39 states that relies on the Dillon Rule, a long-standing policy that means the commonwealth’s government keeps any legal authority not explicitly given to cities or counties. (While many of those states, including Maryland, have implemented carve-outs for some larger jurisdictions, there are no such exceptions in the commonwealth.)

When the Virginia GOP held control of the House of Delegates — and often the Senate — from 2000 through 2019, local lawmakers in deep-blue places such as Arlington and Alexandria, struggled to push through some of their most basic legislative requests. It wasn’t until Democrats took power, for instance, that these localities were able to levy a five-cent tax on plastic bags — an issue first raised over a decade ago.

Under the Dillon Rule, states have to approve any sort of taxing authority in localities. So, some local officials fear there could be a huge fiscal impact on local government budgets if some of the proposals Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) made during the campaign become law. Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“If they were to decide we were going to get less money for schools, it’s not like we can say, ‘We will start an income tax,’” said Sarah Graham Taylor, the assistant city manager in Alexandria, who lobbies on the city’s behalf in the General Assembly. “We only have the authority that’s expressly granted to us, so we have limited options if the commonwealth were to short us on things.”

Alexandria City Council member Canek Aguirre (D), who is set to chair the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission next year, warned that Youngkin’s proposal to suspend a recent increase in the state gas tax could make it harder to get around the region.

Speaking about the gas tax, Aguirre said, “I’m not sure if he knows exactly what it pays for, but that is a huge problem. We’re talking about roads, we’re talking about public transportation, we’re talking about funding for a lot of jurisdictions.”

Last fiscal year, the state gas tax generated nearly $1 billion in revenue, funding other modes of transportation, including Metro and Virginia Railway Express in Northern Virginia.

Nearby in Fairfax County, Jeffrey C. McKay (D), who chairs the county board, said Youngkin’s pledge to eliminate the grocery tax would take $60 million in revenue away from Fairfax’s budget.

A call by the governor-elect for every Virginia school to have a school resource officer on campus would force Fairfax to spend an extra $14 million per year in salaries and benefits, he said, for the extra 140 officers needed to be posted inside the county’s elementary schools.

Currently, Fairfax has school resource officers posted inside high schools and middle schools only, concluding the risk of trouble inside elementary schools isn’t high enough to merit posting officers there.

“If I had $14 million laying around, I wouldn’t spend it to put school resource officers in elementary schools because there is no model to indicate that’s a good idea,” McKay said, calling the idea “a potentially unfunded mandate” that the heavily Democratic county would fiercely oppose.

McKay, who is also the president of the Virginia Association of Counties umbrella group, said that idea could backfire on Youngkin. Many small rural communities in the state where Republicans easily won Tuesday don’t have school resource officers on their campuses because they can’t afford them, he said.

“So, there is some probability that he will not run into direct partisan problems but direct fiscal problems,” McKay said. “And not just in Fairfax County, but every locality in Virginia.”

On more concrete policy matters, local lawmakers have expressed concerns about wonkier topics such as energy policy, which largely stayed out of focus on the campaign trail in favor of culture-war issues such as abortion and school curriculums.

Matt de Ferranti (D), who chairs the Arlington County Board, said some of the county’s most ambitious clean-energy efforts — such as a deal with Amazon to create a solar farm in Pittsylvania County — may not have necessarily succeeded under a Youngkin administration.

“We have been on a very positive trajectory with respect to clean energy,” he said, “and we need to recalculate and reassess what’s possible based on Tuesday.”

Looking ahead, all of the many items still on Arlington’s energy agenda — including directly partnering with utility companies on energy efficiency or reducing the price point for renewables locally — would require approval from the General Assembly. A message left with the state Republican Party was not immediately returned Thursday.

Some Democratic local government leaders in Northern Virginia said they weren’t concerned about how a Republican governor and a Republican-led House of Delegates would affect their goals for state legislation.

Their “legislative packages” — a list of requests sent to legislators in Richmond — focus more on regional goals that are bipartisan, such as getting more state funds to deal with traffic congestion or to address school crowding.

“Local government is not state government,” said Phyllis J. Randall (D), chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. “We’re not nearly as partisan.”

State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said broader Democratic goals, such as reinstating parole and repealing mandatory minimum sentencing, aren’t likely to reach Youngkin’s desk under that rule.

But with Democrats still holding a 21-to-19 majority in the Senate, Youngkin and House Republicans will still have to be open to compromise on some aspects of the Democratic Party agenda.

“I don’t think these elections are a mandate for anything,” Surovell said, citing the fact that Republicans were able to gain some House seats because a delay in U.S. Census data kept those districts from being redrawn this year, which would have likely favored Democrats.

Another open question is the future of the last two years’ signature Democratic policy achievements, which empowered local governments to allow collective bargaining for public-sector unions and implement civilian police review boards.

But Taylor, of Alexandria, warned that local efforts to implement those policies are already well underway — to the point where changing the law would only serve as another blow to local budgets.

“We’ve jumped the hoops, we’ve done our homework and we’re planning to implement this thing,” she said, noting that the city is already in the process of hiring at least two full-time staffers to handle collective bargaining.

A flip from Democratic to shared control in Richmond, she said, will not change what ends up in the city’s legislative package. But it will affect how she presents those requests — for instance, framing a request for funding on a sewer overflow project on the impact to taxpayers, rather than on protecting the environment.

“There is a reason,” she said, “that our legislative package process doesn’t really start publicly until after Election Day.”

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