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Gearing Up for Richmond
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Gearing Up for Richmond

City, schools delineate lobbying priorities for upcoming state legislative session.

The city and school system put forward lobbying agendas for the state General Assembly’s 2019 session, focusing especially on procuring more state funding for sewers and school construction and renovation.

The city and schools have separate but overlapping agendas, the former’s comprising 47 items and the latter’s 13. Each employs a lobbyist — the city’s fulltime, the schools’ contracted — to advance its agenda with state legislators, aides and staffers.

Sarah Taylor, the city’s lobbyist, describes her job as “nurturing” relationships and getting “whatever face time I can get” with legislators, especially during the annual January-February legislative session in Richmond.

The city’s “top priority … is securing state funding for Alexandria’s legislatively mandated combined sewer overflow (CSO) project,” according to Taylor’s proposed agenda, which City Council received for initial consideration on Tuesday, Oct. 23. “To date, the state has provided no financial assistance to the city accompanying its mandate, despite making significant investments in similarly mandated CSO remediation projects in Richmond ($68 million) and Lynchburg ($51 million).” Alexandria wants comparable help.

Alexandria asked Gov. Ralph Northam to include $25 million for sewers in his FY 2019 budget amendments, which Northam will announce on Dec. 18. If that proposal comes to pass, Taylor says she would then work with relevant house and senate committees to ensure it doesn’t get axed in subsequent negotiations.

She’s optimistic so far, saying, “[I] have only gotten positive feedback from folks who are involved in this. They want to help us with this.”

Ultimately the city wants the state the chip in for 20 percent of the total project cost. Based on a current estimated total cost of $400 million, that would make the state’s share $80 million. The city will continue to pursue money it doesn’t get this year in subsequent legislative cycles.

Another of the city’s main priorities, paralleling the school system’s, is to support “innovative funding and/or financing opportunities for new school construction and renovation of older school facilities.”

“School construction and schools buildings … [are] going to be a big issue this year in [the] General Assembly,” said Lilla Wise, the schools’ contract lobbyist. She says state Sen. Bill Stanley (R-20) currently leads an effort to use new Internet sales tax revenue “to bond … something like $3 billion” for Virginia’s school divisions.

However, discussion so far “has been very focused on renovation of schools in older, rural communities,” said Taylor. She wants to ensure “that the conversation is not just about older facilities in rural communities, [but] also about growing communities” like Alexandria. Moreover, she wants to ensure “that any solutions … are truly new money, and that we’re not taking funding away from other areas that are vital to localities, including transportation.”

Diverting funds from transportation to education “could be very, very harmful for us as a city,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “Yes, we clearly want additional investment. This would be the first time the state has really made a significant investment in school facilities at the local level in 20 years. But we want them to do it the right way, and not in a way that harms us in other policy areas.”

The city and schools’ agendas include a broad array of other items, as well. Other things the city would support, which Taylor highlighted in her presentation to council, include the establishment of a nonpartisan redistricting commission to prevent gerrymandering; state Sen. Adam Ebbin’s (D-30) proposed legislation to make simple possession of marijuana a civil rather than a criminal offense; “common sense gun regulations,” including, for example, stricter background checks for gun buyers and prohibition of certain kinds of weapons, accessories and ammunition; not cutting funding for local community service boards, which, under state law, can receive state dollars to assist in delivering “mental health, developmental, and substance abuse services;” and restoring funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, some of whose monies the state diverted to Metro earlier this year.

Other things the school system would support, which Wise highlighted in her presentation to the School Board, include increasing state funding for “at-risk” students, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or learning English as a second language; and legislation making community college courses more accessible to high school students.

However, it may be difficult to pursue controversial items, since 2019 is another election year, said Taylor.

Find the city’s agenda online on council’s Oct. 23 docket (item #11), and the school system’s on the School Board’s Oct. 25 docket (item #13). The School Board adopted its agenda. For the city’s, a public hearing will take place on Saturday, Nov. 17 and final adoption on Tuesday, Nov. 27.

Contact Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, at 703-746-3963 or sarah.taylor@alexandriava.gov.