Every year, elected officials from Virginia’s local governments trek to Richmond for what is known as VACo/VML Legislative Day, an opportunity to buttonhole Senators and Delegates about how issues under consideration at the General Assembly affect localities. More than 400 supervisors, city and town council members, and administrators gathered last Thursday to learn more about activities at the Capitol, and hear a luncheon speech from our new governor, Terry McAuliffe.
Nearly all local jurisdictions belong to either the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo) or the Virginia Municipal League (VML), whose professional legislative staff keep a close eye on bills snaking their way through the arcane process in Richmond. Of intense interest this year are bills that would reduce or remove local authority in land use and zoning decisions, as well as budget amendments that would fund more realistic costs for transportation, insurance, and utilities. On the technical side, unfunded liabilities for teacher retirement plans in the Virginia Retirement System (VRS), are being pushed down to the local level by the state. Such action makes the state’s balance sheet look great, while nearly bankrupting smaller jurisdictions that now must carry the former state debt on their books. Without a legislative change, an estimated $13 billion in unfunded teacher pension liabilities will be assigned to the school divisions, and must appear on the financial reports of localities beginning next year.
One interesting piece of information gleaned on Thursday was a bill that would allow residents and businesses of other states to file requests and receive documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Currently, the state and localities have to fill FOIA requests from citizens of the Commonwealth and the media, but not for persons who live out of state. FOIA requests take significant staff time to respond, and out of state companies often use the information for their own sales purposes. The statutory timeframe for responding to FOIA requests, usually five to seven days, means that staff are taken from their regular responsibilities to respond to FOIA inquiries, reducing the amount of time they have to serve constituents in the community. The Virginia FOIA Advisory Council declined to endorse the legislation, and late in the day, the House Subcommittee on General Laws continued the bill to 2015.
One delightful new event at VACo/VML Day was an invitation from Governor McAuliffe for a late-day reception at the Executive Mansion. Longtime elected officials could not remember the last time a sitting Virginia governor had extended such a gracious invitation. The mansion is on the grounds of the Capitol, and underwent an extensive renovation in 1998. In those genteel and historic surroundings, elected officials had one-on-one conversations with Governor McAuliffe, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, and Secretary of Education Anne Holton. Such bi-partisan social occasions build valuable relationships between state and local level officials, as we face future challenges together.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]