Unique structural issues make progress in Virginia difficult

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier, Publisher

Traveling around Virginia, I often hear, “Richmond won’t let us,” or “Richmond would have to approve that …”

As a Richmond native, this takes some getting used to.  After all, it’s not the city, it’s the General Assembly, that makes these decisions.

Most of these conversations cite the so-called “Dillon Rule.”  The name comes from an Iowa judge who in 1868 opined on the fact that the U.S. Constitution gives rights to states but makes no mention of cities, counties or other local governments.

Judge John F. Dillon’s solution was to make county and city decisions subject to approval by the state.  If the state did not confer powers to the local government, they remained with the state.
Today, there are 39 “Dillon Rule” states, 10 that govern in alternative form called “Home Rule,” and one (Florida) that utilizes a combination of both alternatives.

Virginia is hardly unique in its Dillon-rule status.  And, while it’s often blamed for hampering local progress, studies have shown the Dillon rule seems to have no bearing on local growth and development.
The oft-cited Dillon Rule is actually a scapegoat for three much tougher issues virtually unique to Virginia: 1) independent cities, 2) an annexation moratorium and 3) a one-term governor.

Independent cities in Virginia can be traced to 1871 when a revised state constitution took effect after the Civil War.  At that time, cities held the upper hand when compared with rural areas. The cities became independent municipalities to ensure that their status as economic power centers would remain undisturbed. Of the 43 independent cities that exist in the U.S. today, 39 are in Virginia.

Ironically, the balance today has shifted starkly in the other direction. Virginia’s cities are increasingly challenged by diminishing tax bases as businesses and affluent residents migrate to suburban counties.
Annexation of county land was supposed to provide a way for cities to expand, but this option has been largely unavailable to Virginia’s cities for decades.

From 1965 to 1970, Chesterfield County and the City of Richmond were locked in an annexation court battle.  Ultimately, a compromise was reached between Irvin G. Horner, the chairman of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, and Richmond Mayor Phil J. Bagley Jr. Richmond was granted rights to the land, schools, public services and utilities of 23 square miles of Chesterfield County.

Residents of so-called “Occupied Chesterfield,” cried foul for being shifted to the city without a referendum.  At the same time, African-American city residents charged that the annexation had diluted their voting power.

Add to this Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.’s historic federal court decision in 1971 to desegregate Richmond’s public schools through busing.  Could annexation have looked any worse?

The predictable result for the General Assembly (even by today’s standards) was first to study and then to delay.  In 1987, a law was passed placing a 15-year moratorium on annexation.  In 1999, the moratorium was extended by the General Assembly to 2010.

In 2007, a bill was introduced to extend the annexation moratorium to 2020 (HB 1979, sponsored by Del. Matthew R. Lohr R-Harrisonburg).  It was passed by both the House and the Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. “Any further extension should be accompanied by a careful consideration of the effects of this ‘temporary’ restriction,’” Kaine said.  “It is more appropriate for the General Assembly to consider this legislation closer to the time that the current provision expires.”

That time came this year. Bills sponsored by Lohr and state Sens. Stephen D. Newman, R-Forest, and Frederick M. Quayle, R-Suffolk, proposed extending the moratorium to 2018. The legislation was approved overwhelmingly by both houses and signed by Kaine. So lacking further action, the annexation moratorium has been extended to another nine years.

Here we have an example of a governor attempting to make strategic progress in the only state in the U.S. that does not allow gubernatorial succession. 

Next year, someone new will occupy the Executive Mansion. Will annexation rights for Virginia’s beleaguered independent cities be part of the new agenda?  It certainly hasn’t been very apparent from the campaign dialogue.

Will another one-term governor be willing to spend political capital on annexation?  Not likely. The vast majority of legislators in both parties represent suburban and rural constituents who have nothing to gain from annexation.

So, it’s not the Dillon Rule that holds back regional cooperation and development.  The culprits are Virginia’s antiquated system of independent cities, its lack of an annexation solution and its status as the last state in the U.S. to refuse its governor a second term.

By the way, did anyone mention transportation?

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