City leaders send ‘wish list’ legislative package to General Assembly

City leaders send ‘wish list’ legislative package to General Assembly
City leaders have sent a legislative package to the General Assembly in hopes of making progress in Alexandria. (File photo)

By Mark Eaton

Alexandria’s Legislative Director Sarah Graham Taylor and members of City Council are unsure how much of the city’s “wish list” has a chance of enactment during this year’s General Assembly session, which began January 10, though the odds of passage increased when Democrats gained control of both the Senate and House of Delegates in the November election.

Only twice in the last 20 years has Council passed along a legislative package to a General Assembly with Democratic majorities in both chambers. In the same time span, Republicans controlled both houses of the General Assembly 12 times – and the legislature was politically split the other years.

The 2024 session’s legislative accomplishments are likely to be defined by the areas, if any, where the modest Democratic majorities agree with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson wrote in an email that the session should be entertaining though perhaps not wildly productive.

“This will be an interesting session, with narrow margins in both houses and divided government. I imagine there will be many vetoes and the budget will be most of the action,” Wilson wrote.

The General Assembly convenes this year in a “long” session – 60 days – because 2024 is an even-numbered year. In odd-numbered years, the General Assembly meets for 30 days, although the session is often extended to 45 days. This year’s session is slated to end on March 9.

There are numerous new faces in the General Assembly, including new senators and House of Delegates members from Northern Virginia.

The legislative package – a combination wish list, suggestions for government efficiencies and appeals to the state for help – is important because Virginia follows the Dillon Rule. This principle of municipal law mandates that localities have only the authority delegated or authorized to them by the state.

Taylor said the city “has no inherent authority.”

“What do we want to spend political capital on?” Taylor, who is also an Alexandria Assistant City Manager, asked as she opened the Dec. 8, 2023, meeting of City Council’s Legislative Subcommittee. The subcommittee consists of Wilson and Councilor R. Kirk McPike. Accompanied by City Manager James Parajon and city department representatives, they reviewed a “laundry list” of 101 legislative requests originating from boards and commissions, city departments, community organizations and Council members.

Wilson said there will be additional meetings of the subcommittee as bills are introduced in the General Assembly session. McPike said last year, Council traveled as a group to Richmond to meet with lawmakers about the city’s requests and priorities.

The 2024 legislative package

Alexandria’s draft legislative package was on Council’s Dec. 12, 2023, docket for consideration and a first reading. The legislative package is organized in five categories.

The categories, and examples of the requests in each one, are shown below.

Support of vulnerable and underserved populations

  • The city supports efforts to address learning loss and chronic absenteeism among Virginia students, especially among disengaged youth and students with higher level, more specialized needs, including special education students, English language learners and students living in economically disadvantaged households.
  • The city supports legislation and budget items that prevent evictions and protect individuals and families who are precariously housed and face housing challenges, including legislation to: Reinstate the 14-day pay or quit notice, require full fee disclosure and transparency and require any fee increases to coincide with the term of a lease; require critical lease information be made available in languages other than English and establish a minimum amount owed for an eviction filing.
  • The city supports establishing a refundable Child Tax Credit and strengthening and expanding access to Virginia’s newly refundable Earned Income Tax Credit.

Local authority and funding for localities

  • The city supports additional tools and authority to protect and expand the stock of affordable housing in the region and across the Commonwealth. It also supports legislation and budget items that facilitate a housing economy in Alexandria, and across Virginia, that helps provide the necessary range of price points, safe and sustainable housing options and the associated services to meet the needs of a thriving city and Commonwealth.
  • The city supports legislation to provide localities with the authority to regulate the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and to create incentive programs to encourage the adoption of energy efficient technologies, machinery and appliances.
  • The city supports legislation to allow localities to supplement their Alcohol Safety Action Programs to charge a local administrative fee to offset shortfalls in their ASAP budgets.

Promoting clean and efficient energy

  • The city supports efforts to protect and expand provisions of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, with a focus on legislative strategies that provide a sustainable and reliable power grid while achieving lower emission levels associated with renewable energy sources in the Commonwealth.
  • The city supports efforts to ensure that current funding sources for flood resilience and energy efficiency projects are, at a minimum, maintained and any funding that is removed is replaced, dollar-for-dollar, by a dedicated funding source.
  • The city supports state investment in clean energy and energy efficiency, including funding for a State E-Bike rebate program and funding for the existing state vehicle program to complement the federal rebate program

Enhancement of public engagement, health and safety

  • The city supports increased state funding for gun violence intervention programs, including the Virginia Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund and the Operation Ceasefire Grant Program.
  • The city supports legislation to authorize localities to seize illegally operated ATVs and off-road vehicles.
  • The city supports legislation that makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to recruit, hire and retain officers, including recruiting and hiring non-citizens who have been in the country for five years and are on the path to citizenship.

Strengthening state and local partnerships

  • The city supports legislation to extend the mandated July 1, 2025, deadline for the completion of the Alexandria combined sewer overflow project by one year and supports additional state investment in this generational infrastructure project.
  • The city supports policies and investment that ensure the WMATA system is safe, reliable and financially sound and that addressing the WMATA funding gap is done without increasing the funding obligation of Northern Virginia localities.
  • The city supports statewide programs and funding to address the need for additional affordable housing in our community and to preserve currently affordable housing stock, including an increase in funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, one of the Commonwealth’s most important tools to assist local and regional efforts in crafting housing affordability solutions.

There could also be significant debate about, and possible changes to, the formulas that Virginia uses to provide state aid to the public schools during the 2024 General Assembly session. Alexandria City Public Schools receives most of its funding from the city, but state support is important.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission is statutorily authorized to conduct program evaluation, policy analysis and oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly. In July 2023, JLARC issued a study that was highly critical of the way Virginia funds its public schools.

“Most other states use simpler student-based K-12 funding formulas, in contrast to Virginia’s complex staffing-based formula,” the JLARC study reads in part.

Wilson expressed optimism there will be progress on the funding issue this year.

“My hope is that we’ll see real action this session on school funding, following on this year’s JLARC study,” Wilson said in an emailed response. “Given some of the findings, I believe it compels urgent action, and I am hopeful that the General Assembly is willing to roll-up their sleeves and move things forward. The current formula does not fund the need in public education, mismatches resources and need and is entirely inscrutable.”

High-profile bills

Lawmakers representing Alexandria have introduced bills, some of which may be veto targets for Youngkin, in the General Assembly’s pre-filing period.

Delegate Charniele Herring (D) introduced House Joint Resolution 1 which, together with Senate Joint Resolution 1, would begin the process of amending the Virginia Constitution to provide that “every individual has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom.”

House Joint Resolution 2, from Delegate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D), together with Senate Joint Resolution 2, would begin the process of amending the Constitution to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences. Virginia is the only state that bars felons from voting for their entire lives, with restoration available only through a petition to the governor.

Other bills introduced in the pre-filing period would extend the property tax exemption currently available to spouses of soldiers killed in action to spouses of soldiers who died in the line of duty, gradually raise the state minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour and ban assault weapons.

McPike said Alexandria’s leaders seek authority from Richmond to address our own specific challenges.

“… housing affordability, flooding, and improved funding for our schools … will be priorities this year,” McPike said in a statement. “There will be bills to give localities better tools to address quality of life issues like speeding, noise, and landlords who fail to properly maintain their properties, and I expect Council will endorse those efforts again this year.”

McPike also emphasized the need for a region-wide response to funding challenges faced by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“So much of what we do in Alexandria relies on our transit system, and we need to ensure that representatives from across the Commonwealth understand how central WMATA is to Virginia’s economic prospects,” McPike said in the statement.