Council prepares for General Assembly session with new state Republican majority

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Council prepares for General Assembly session with new state Republican majority
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

With Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin stepping into the governor’s mansion next year and a Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, the tone of Tuesday’s draft legislative package presentation was decidedly different for City Council.

Every year, City Council approves a set of proposed priorities that the city’s legislative director attempts to drum up support for in the General Assembly session that begins in January. This process is key in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia where local authority is granted by the state. With the recent election results swinging in favor of Republicans, several members of council expressed concern that the past few years of Alexandria’s financial and legislative goals aligning with those of state leadership could be behind them.

“I think there are opportunities, and we certainly want to partner with the new administration to move forward on issues where we can find agreement. Certainly … we’re going to have to play defense in some areas,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.

Ahead of the Jan. 12 session start date, Legislative Director Sarah Taylor presented a preliminary version of the package during Tuesday’s legislative meeting, which mirrors many of the priorities and goals the city has pursued in recent years.

The package focused on securing state support for infrastructure investments; preservation of local authority and funding; protections for vulnerable and underserved groups; equity and policy around clean energy and energy efficiency.

The most significant monetary investment the city is looking to secure going into the January General Assembly session is a final $40 million in state bonds for the $400 million state-mandated overhaul of Alexandria’s combined sewer system project. With the city required by law to complete the project by 2025, Councilor Amy Jackson questioned whether the new state leadership and its differing financial priorities will impact the project timeline.

“We’re about to have a change in administration at the state level. How concerned should we be that eventually we may not have the money for the mandated project to continue to 2025?” Jackson asked.

Taylor was cagey about just how much of an impact the new Republican administration will have on the city’s funding goals but expressed confidence in Alexandria’s state delegates to “stand fast on the commitment that was made in the previous budget.”

“Change always opens up opportunities for different priorities and different visions for investment depending on who is in the finance secretary’s seat,” Taylor said. “… That being said, we are incredibly lucky that three members of our delegation are on the senate finance committee.”

“I do think we need to make it clear that [it] is a number one priority and if we are asking our delegation to expend political capital on our behalf, that this is something that is incredibly important to our community,” Taylor added.

Taylor outlined several other specific infrastructure needs that the city is prioritizing, including one that city leadership and Youngkin appear to agree on. The legislative package includes support for legislation that would require greater transparency from electric utility companies in the state. That includes Dominion Power, the city’s provider that has consistently come under fire from Wilson and residents for its frequent outages. The city’s draft legislative package calls for electricity providers to report and publish reliability data to the state for their overall system and individual localities on an annual basis.

In addition to supporting statewide efforts in areas like flooding and affordable housing, the city’s legislative package also seeks more money for child care, school construction and renovation, broadband investment and the preservation and restoration of Douglass Memorial Cemetery, a historic Black cemetery.

Taylor also presented a number of areas where Alexandria aims to preserve or expand local authority. The package calls for localities to have more authority over increasing funding for K-12 education, modernizing local tax structures, preserving and expanding tree canopy and enhancing safety around high rise buildings. There are other items that the city has no authority to regulate, such as the ability to ban or regulate gas-powered leaf blowers and designate locations for red light and speed cameras, that the legislative package aims to address.

The proposed legislative package also focuses on equity and supporting and protecting some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Some of the package priorities include: targeted support for eviction prevention, such as a 10-day eviction appeal window and limit on annual rent increases; expansion of voter access; increased access to legal representation in child welfare cases and limitations on qualified immunity for law enforcement officers involved in excessive use of force cases.

Taylor cautioned council that the city’s climate and energy goals are unlikely to align with goals of the incoming administration.

“I think this is one section where we would want to put down some markers about protecting some efforts that have happened recently … protecting some progress that has been made over the last couple of years,” Taylor said. “… This area in particular might not be the time for new; it might be the time for some protection and playing some defense.”

“I know there’s already been press about the stated intent of the new majority in the House of Delegates to try to gut some of that [climate] legislation, and we certainly need the state to continue their progress in order for us to achieve our local goals,” Wilson said. “We’ll certainly stand strong to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Despite the change in leadership at the state level, Taylor said she remains hopeful that many of the city’s goals, such as the proposed infrastructure investments, will find bipartisan support.

“We just had an election, and things are going to look a lot different down in Richmond than they did last session. That being said, I think we bring a lot of issues to the table that are either non-partisan or bipartisan,” Taylor said.

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam will propose his budget on the way out the door on Dec. 16. The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates will then take over on Jan. 12, deliberating and eventually settling on a budget over the course of a 60-day session to send to Youngkin.

Taylor, who has experience working for minority Democrats in the Oklahoma state senate, said the shift in political climate will mean the city has to revise how it approaches the upcoming General Assembly session. The city’s delegation will have to focus on “looking for opportunities for incremental progress, looking for ways to solve problems a little differently and looking for ways to bring folks, bring stakeholders to the table, bring different friends to the table,” Taylor said.

The mayor said regional collaboration throughout Northern Virginia will become even more vital in achieving Alexandria’s stated legislative priorities over the next few years.

“Given some of the political realities, it’s going to require the region to speak very clearly and work together across the region,” Wilson said. “… I think there’s going to be a desire to band together and speak for Northern Virginia as much as we possibly can because it’s going to be a very different geographical scenario down in Richmond for the upcoming session.”

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