Nervous Time for Localities: The General Assembly Is In Session

By: Andrew McRoberts, Editor. This was posted Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

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It happens in January, every year.  The General Assembly convenes and considers all manner of bills that localities support or oppose.  And localities get nervous.  More nervous than most Assembly-watchers, I say.

Why would that be?

While the General Assembly adopts legislation every year that affects Virginians, arguably it has more of an effect on localities.  Given the Dillon Rule and its strong limitation on the powers of localities, a series of bills are filed every year reducing or controlling how localities do their business.  Some succeed, and many fail.  No matter the merit of these bills, they threaten to or do, in fact, significantly impact how localities act.  In addition, the state budget has arguably even more impact on local governments due to the enormous importance of state funding in what localities do, in everything from schools, to constitutional officers, to transportation, to social services, to community services, and more.  Potential cuts in the budget cause great nervousness.

For a bit of perspective, please consider this:  How would you like it for the General Assembly to annually reduce (or threaten to reduce) your authority or funding to do something you routinely engage in?

Local governments are represented at the General Assembly by a broad mix of advocates, including the Virginia Association of Counties (counties), the Virginia Municipal League (mostly cities and towns), other more specialized advocacy groups such as the Virginia Coalition of High Growth Communities or the Rural Caucus, and individual localities’ staff and their full-time or contracted legislative liaisons.  They do a very good job under difficult circumstances.  As county attorney and legislative liaison, and more recently at Sands Anderson, I have had the chance on many occasions over the years to work with them all.

A long-time attorney friend and frequent liaison once told me that local governments are seen as just another special interest group by the General Assembly.  And, she added, a poorly funded one.

Although the former may often be true, it should not be.  Unlike other special interest groups, localities represent all citizens in their community and their governing bodies are elected and sworn to do so.  The General Assembly should afford localities’ legislative positions more respect than just another special interest group.

However, the latter is undoubtedly true, given legal restrictions on governments donating to elected officials as other special interest organizations do.  Localities simply cannot give campaign cash to delegates and senators as many groups do.  And, while the advocacy efforts of the local government representatives to the General Assembly are good, their efforts ultimately compete with schools, law enforcement, roads, parks & recreation and other important local government services for local funding.

So, best wishes to our local government liaisons and advocates at the General Assembly, and a tip of the hat for the difficult job that they do.

The good news?   The nervous time is nearly over.

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