With Democrats in charge, power drips down to Va. counties, cities and towns
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RICHMOND — Virginia Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) freely admits she's addicted to 7-Eleven's Big Gulp.
“Thirty ounces for 99 cents? It’s a great deal,” she said during a recent break on the House floor.
Because Virginia cities and towns can levy taxes without getting the consent of the General Assembly, and the state’s counties cannot, Watts pays a few pennies more or less for the sugary drink depending on where she buys it.
A Big Gulp costs $1.02 in Fairfax County, she said, but $1.05 in Fairfax City and Vienna, $1.08 in Richmond and $1.11 in Hampton Roads. The additional pennies, spread over all the thirsty customers in populous Fairfax County, could make a big difference for schools, police, roads and other municipal needs.
“It’s a result of a century-old, totally artificial distinction between cities and counties,” Watts said. “It just doesn’t make sense at all, and stops us from relieving pressure on the real estate tax, which falls hardest on seniors on fixed incomes.”
Virginia’s General Assembly, newly controlled by Democrats, is moving to erase that distinction — one of a number of proposed changes that would shift decision-making from Richmond to city councils and county boards, giving local governments unprecedented power that state lawmakers have closely guarded for decades.
This week, both chambers passed legislation that would grant counties the same taxing authority that cities have long had. Other legislation would expand local powers to tax meals, hotels, single-use plastic bags and more; control guns in public places; bargain with public employees; and move or remove war memorials such as Confederate statues from public land.
“What we’re trying to do is push decisions back down to the local level . . . rightfully back to the localities,” said Dean Lynch, executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties.
The association’s top legislative goal this year was to “equalize” the taxing authority of counties — where 70 percent of Virginia’s 8.6 million residents live — with cities and towns. While cities and towns can enact hotel, meals and cigarette taxes, for example, counties in most cases cannot. An individual county needs agreement from two-thirds of state lawmakers before it can levy its own tax on an item the state has deemed taxable.
The Senate version of the bill would cap some of the taxes and delay when the legislation would go into effect, differences which will be worked out in conference committee with the House of Delegates. The final version would be subject to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s approval.
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Communities that want to move Confederate statues have been barred from doing so by state law. But bills passed by both legislative chambers this session would allow cities and counties to make that decision themselves.
“Robert E. Lee never stepped foot in our city,” said Del. Sally L. Hudson (D-Charlottesville), referring to the Confederate general depicted in the Civil War monument that drew white supremacist protesters to Charlottesville in 2017.
In an emotional speech from the House floor, Hudson also cited a “Johnny Reb” statue outside the local courthouse, saying it causes black men to wonder if they will get justice inside the building.
Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond) noted that under the proposed legislation, local governments can choose to leave their Confederate statues alone. Or they could offer context with a marker, and raise other statues to pay tribute to African Americans who helped build Virginia and the nation.
Other bills would give city councils and county commissions the power to enact stricter gun-control laws, such as barring firearms from city or county buildings and parks. The prospect worries opponents of such restrictions.
“My biggest concern is in the area of criminal law, especially in the area of firearms,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who noted the likelihood of different laws in adjoining jurisdictions.
“Town to city, city to county, ordinary citizens may quite possibly run afoul of the concealed carry permit law just by crossing local lines,” Gilbert said. “It’s going to be a minefield for the average citizen, who is not going to be able to travel across Virginia without violating the law.”
That non-uniformity, which some call flexibility, will also play out if people who work for cities and counties win the right to collectively bargain. A bill approved by the Senate gives localities the option to allow labor bargaining, while the House version mandates it, another disagreement that would have to be worked out in committee.
Both chambers of the General Assembly have also approved bills allowing counties to increase the pay for public defenders — who are paid by local jurisdictions, while prosecutors in the local Commonwealth’s attorneys officers are paid by the state.
A tax on single-use plastic bags, which Arlington County has sought, would be possible under legislation that has been approved by each chamber.
The legislation carves out a number of exceptions — bags used to carry ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, perishable food items, leftover restaurant food, newspapers, dry cleaning, alcoholic beverages, prescription drugs, garbage, pet waste, or leaf removal bags. The Senate version makes the five cents per bag tax mandatory in Northern Virginia and optional elsewhere.
“For the first time, we’ve seen the General Assembly take steps to recognize localities need to make certain choices as to what goes on in our community,” said Sarah Graham Taylor, Alexandria’s legislative director. She compared the current system to having to “ask Daddy if we can use the credit cards.”
While Democrats have said they are not interested in overturning the Dillon Rule, a 19th-century policy which says states retain any legal authority not explicitly granted to local governments, Gilbert said “it seems they’re more willing to head in that direction than anyone has suggested previously.”
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