Alexandria's city government played an active role in the recent legislative session. On issues ranging from the Mirant power plant to red-light cameras, city legislative director Bernard Caton worked at influencing the support of some bills and opposition to others. Lawmakers and their staff left town before the snow began to fall on Monday, and their exit left a gritty capital in transition.
Richmond looks like a cross between a construction site and a war zone. People who live inside Washington's Capital Beltway often describe the District of Columbia as "a city under siege," but people who live in Richmond are surrounded by an all-but deserted capital city. Once-grand buildings are boarded-up, and squatters sell drugs in dark corners. Hotel bellhops tell visitors not to walk the city streets.
"The city's got some problems, but there are a lot of positive developments," said Caton, noting a new courthouse and a new convention center. "What Richmond needs now is some new hotel rooms for the people who come to the convention center."
In the midst of a multi-million project to renovate Virginia's Capitol, lawmakers will meet next year in a nearby library while renovations are made to the Greek-inspired temple that was originally designed by Thomas Jefferson. The building may be closed for more than two years while the project is being completed, so officials in Richmond are searching for alternative venues to accomplish the ceremonial functions of state. On Feb. 26, the General Assembly gave final approval to holding the gubernatorial inauguration in Colonial Williamsburg's re-created Capitol building.
MEANWHILE, THE WANING DAYS of the General Assembly brought restlessness to the lawmaking process. Members of the House of Delegates who rambled were met with jeering disapproval as other members moaned and held up white sheets of paper. This practice, known in Richmond as "waving the white flag," is a way to speed things up. But all the white flags in Virginia couldn't speed things up enough to end on time on Saturday, and so the session ended Sunday afternoon. As the sun set on Sunday evening in Richmond, city officials in Alexandria could celebrate numerous victories and curse several bitter defeats.
"We have needs for mass transit that are not being met," said Caton after the General Assembly ended. "We're having to pay a larger and larger amount for the capital and operating costs of WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority]." The General Assembly's transportation funding for Northern Virginia is the biggest disappointment to city leaders. "Life goes on," Mayor William Euille said at the Feb. 22 meeting of the City Council. "We'll resurrect this issue in future sessions."
OF THE MANY BILLS that Alexandria's city government supported during the General Assembly, several are now on their way to the governor's desk:
• One bill that the city's lobbyist fought for was SB1079, which was patroned by Sen. Patricia Ticer (D-Alexandria). The senator created this bill to extend the window of opportunity for employment discrimination lawsuits, which are often diminished by battles over jurisdiction. Ticer's bill passed the Senate by 38 to 0 and passed the House by 98 to 0.
• Another bill that the city's legislative director fought for is HB578. Patroned by Del. Philip Hamilton (R-93), this bill helps the justice system to work more efficiently by allowing judges to preside over certain cases via closed-circuit television. These include cases involving emergency custody, temporary detention, and involuntary commitment of minors. It passed the House by a vote of 93 to 0 and the Senate by a vote of 40 to 0.
• Hamilton, who is the chairman of the Health Welfare and Institutions Committee, also patroned HB2512. This bill, which Caton lobbied for, was designed to help assisted living facilities provide information to potential clients, additional training for staff and strengthened enforcement of codes. This bill passed the House by 95 to 1 and passed the Senate by 39 to 0.
• The city government was also interested in lobbying for HB2448, which was designed to help victims of domestic violence. Terrie Suit (R-81) patroned this bill, which allows tenets who are covered by protective orders to install new locks. This bill passed the House by 98 to 0 and passed the Senate by 40 to 0.
THE CITY did not win all its battles, however, and some of its favored bills went down in defeat. Several bills that Caton lobbied for died during the late session:
• The most highly visible failure included the red-light cameras. The City of Alexandria actively lobbied to keep the cameras, which Caton described as a means to "cut down on red-light running." Five bills seeking permission for red-light cameras to operate past July 1 were killed by the Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety. While Caton was explaining to the City Council that the cameras were likely to get the proverbial red light in a Feb. 22 meeting, Vice Mayor Del Pepper suggested that the city might be able to get some revenue from selling the cameras to the District of Columbia. "Maybe we could start an archive," Euille joked. "We be the only city in the country with a red-light camera archive."
• Another bill that the city lobbyist failed to send to the governor was HB2546, which was one of the seven bills that were patroned by the retiring Del. Marian Van Landingham. The bill set strict environmental standards for power plants such as Mirant, the coal-burning in Old Town that began operations in 1949. In the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, 21 members voted to table it. Only one member, Albert C. Eisenberg (D-47), voted in favor of the legislation. Several days after Van Landingham's bill was tabled, Mirant filed a lawsuit against the City of Alexandria in circuit court to seek to stop zoning changes designed to close the plant.
• A major concern of the city government is the increased percentage of transportation costs that the city must pay. That is why Caton lobbied for SB 1099, a bill patroned by Sen. Mary Whipple (D-31). But the bill to increase sales tax on fuels in the Northern Virginia Transportation District was tabled in the Finance Committee by a vote of 17 to 4.
CITY OFFICIALS were also interested in stopping certain pieces of legislation, a goal that is usually accomplished by preventing a bill from getting out of committee. Caton worked to kill certain bills to prevent them from becoming laws:
• Affordable housing is an ongoing goal for the Alexandria government, so city officials were concerned that one bill in Richmond would prevent developers from donating money to help create affordable housing in Alexandria. Del. Gary Reese (R-67) and Sen. William Mims (R-33) agreed to strike the bill after reaching an agreement with Arlington government. The agreement, which will prevent Arlington from seeking an appeal of a 2004 lawsuit, will allow Alexandria's Housing Trust Fund to continue receiving voluntary donations from developers.
• Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a goal that is shared by many who live in Northern Virginia. But where will the commonwealth's Water Improvement Quality Fund get its money? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a prominent environmental group, suggested that local governments collect a new tax to help finance the clean up of the Chesapeake Bay. This proposal came to be known as the "flush tax;" Alexandria city officials joined the chorus of opposition to this bill. Caton and others argued that the money should come from general funds. In the end, the "flush tax" was flushed and $50 million was appropriated from the general fund into the Water Improvement Quality Fund.
• One example of a bill that was successfully altered in the conference committee process was a cap on land preservation tax credits. As originally proposed by Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr. (R-24), SB1139 capped the aggregate amount of credit that may be claimed at $600. With real estate assessments in Alexandria spiraling ever upward, this cap would have had a detrimental influence on land that is donated for the purpose of open space strategies, natural resource preservation, biodiversity conservation, forestal use, watershed protection or historic preservation. According to Caton, the House speaker personally intervened to remove the cap from this legislation. In its final form, the bill requires the market value of donations to be substantiated by a qualified appraisal.