Sep 21, 2022 - News

Town Talker: Northern Virginia vs. Youngkin

Illustration of an elephant trunk wrapping around the state of Virginia
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Fairfax County board chair Jeff McKay spends his days pining for more local authority to lead this sprawling territory home to places like Tysons — dubbed “America's next great city” — and 1.2 million Virginians. As with other Northern Virginia leaders, he wants more local power. That’s hard to come by in the Youngkin era.

The big picture: Northern Virginia is a union of blue enclaves. Its prosperous businesses are the envy of the Washington region, and its taxpayers fill coffers in Richmond. But thanks to the commonwealth's archaic limits on counties — for instance, they can’t levy personal income taxes and have to ask Richmond for permission on even small-bore issues — that Democratic strength doesn’t translate into local political muscle.

Why it matters: For Democrats, the stakes couldn’t be higher with Gov. Glenn Youngkin, when top-down conservative policies — from a NoVA man no less — are roiling the region.

The limits on local rule are nothing new. But at this moment, they are more than ever feeding the perception that the growing hubs of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties are relatively powerless to shape their destinies. Cities they are not.

What I’m hearing: Northern Virginia’s urban counties would like to have the powers afforded to executives and lawmakers in big cities or areas such as Montgomery County. In the past, they’ve had trouble raising the minimum wage, removing Confederate statues, and taxing plastic bags without state approval.

  • “There’s still a cadre in Richmond who believe counties are unsophisticated,” McKay tells me. He would like the option for the county to levy taxes on personal income or other services to diversify the county’s revenue, which is about 90% dependent on property taxes. (The recent hot real estate market was good for coffers, but that revenue source is a bit less hot these days.)
  • He frets that “we can’t keep being the ATM for Virginia.” He has calculated that Fairfax County receives only 23 cents for each dollar it pays in state taxes.

The latest blow came after Youngkin issued new directives late Friday rolling back accommodations for transgender students. While several school districts in NoVA were still reviewing his executive order, Alexandria City Schools' leaders declared they were not going to follow it.

Context: Virginia’s narrow limits on local power stem from the Dillon Rule, an 1868 Iowa court decision that became the bedrock of American municipal law. Virginia isn’t alone in being a Dillon Rule state, but many others have adopted a more relaxed version, granting counties and local governments wider latitude to exercise power.

In Arlington County, the friction with Youngkin was felt early on when the guv’s first veto scuttled the county’s desire to hire an independent police auditor.

  • “We were all really taken aback,” said Arlington County board chair Katie Cristol. “There’s a real kind of tension and frustration, whether its abortion access or gun control.”

Between the lines: While the Dillon Rule has long thwarted Northern Virginia’s liberal ambitions, Youngkin has taken it to a new level by trying to redo a school board election in Loudoun County and banning local school mask mandates, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

  • “This is the strong hand of central government control by the state. Under, ironically, a conservative Republican administration,” he says.

Youngkin’s office did not return a request for comment.

Yes, but: Despite local Democratic outrage, more control for counties is not in the offing.

Virginia state delegates Paul Krizek and Mark Sickles are two Democrats who represent the region in the legislature. While sympathetic to the plight of locals, they argue Northern Virginia locales shouldn’t forget their taxes also pay for things the state offers everyone, including colleges, transportation, and safety net services.

Responding to McKay’s 23 cents calculation, “he’s not including the benefits that 1.2 million people in Virginia are getting,” Sickles says over lunch in Alexandria.

“Fairfax County could certainly handle more power,” Krizek adds. “But on the other hand, it’s a non-starter really. I don’t see it coming up in the General Assembly.”

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