Local officials wait on Richmond’s budget talks

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

While most of the Virginia General Assembly’s work is done for the year, many of the Port City’s legislative priorities remain tied up in the ongoing brinkmanship over the state budget.

Bernie Caton, Alexandria’s top lobbyist in Richmond, said city leaders otherwise got much of what they wanted in the way of legislative changes. The most notable is a charter amendment that lets the city attorney’s office occasionally act on behalf of the school board.

Officials previously said they wanted the change so that the school district would not need to pay for outside legal counsel on matters like labor disputes.

“We may not move in the full direction that the city attorney just be the full attorney for the school board, but this would at least allow them to draw on some of the resources in that office,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson earlier this year. “[All] this does is … gives them the ability and removes the prohibition.”

Caton said the city also successfully backed a law closing a gap in the state’s employment anti-discrimination laws in regards to cases of ageism. Previously, local governments could intervene in cases of wrongful termination — on the basis of age — involving businesses with between five and 14 employees. But federal officials do not step in unless a company has at least 20 workers, leaving a sizeable gray area.

“We’ve been trying for a number of years — about five years — to get what should have been a simple change,” Caton said. “Given the difficulty in years past, it was really rewarding to have the General Assembly bump the law up to 20 employees.”

Despite those victories, most of Caton’s lobbying this year has been inextricably linked to budget talks, where a standoff over whether to expand Medicaid access using federal dollars from the Affordable Care Act forced a special session. Those negotiations began last week.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’ll be settled any time soon,” Caton joked.

Alexandria officials supported Medicaid expansion in their annual legislative package.

Caton said the Port City has had mixed success in securing dollars for other initiatives. He made a big push to fully restore cost of competing funds, which sends extra money to the city school district for attracting and retaining qualified teachers. The financial boost is meant to offset Northern Virginia’s higher cost of living.

“The state still didn’t fully fund it [in the latest budget proposals],” he said. “There’s a little more in there than what [former Gov. Bob] McDonnell recommended, but we won’t get as much as we asked for.”

And legislators severely limited the budget of the Opportunity Educational Institution, the recently created state agency tasked with taking over struggling local schools. According to budget proposals in both the House of Delegates and Senate, the agency will only receive $150,000 in funding — well short of the amount McDonnell requested, Caton said.

“All it will do is allow the McAuliffe administration to figure out what to do with it,” Caton said. “It won’t be enough to take over any schools. … I don’t even know how they can pay the guy they hired to be the director with it.”

One other issue that remains very much up in the air is how the influx of new transportation dollars will be spent. The uptick follows McDonnell’s overhaul of the gas tax last year.

Caton said a few lawmakers want the requirements determining the eligibility of highway construction projects for state tax dollars extended to other public transportation initiatives. For potential highways, planners must prove, through a series of studies, that the new road improves congestion.

But those same studies might not accurately reflect how other transit projects would affect congestion, Caton said.

“It just wouldn’t work, since the way of doing the study is aimed at trying to show how new highways will help congestion, but you’d have to go about it entirely differently for transit,” he said. “We hope that will not end up in the final budget.”

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