Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wonkish Rant of the Day

A story in today's Washington Post says a lot about the problems facing local governments in the state of Virginia. The story is about how Fairfax County is considering the possibility of seeking city status in order to exercise greater control over its own affairs, particularly in terms of transportation. Because of Virginia's strict adherence to the Dillon Rule, localities have very little authority of their own (though independent cities can do more than counties or towns), and must depend on the good graces of the General Assembly to do pretty much anything. Not surprisingly, this power disparity has led to all sorts of messy disputes between localities--if you live anywhere near the dividing line between a city and a county, you know exactly what I mean.

As for whether or not Fairfax County should move forward with plans to become a city, I'll leave that debate to the Fairfax citizenry and blogosphere. But this episode brings up something we should be spending a lot more time talking about, particularly in an election year: why are we still allowing Richmond to micromanage our local governments? For that matter, why aren't more statewide Republicans bringing attention to this? A lot of conservatives I've talked to are big proponents of devolving some federal and state power to the localities, which should in theory have a better grasp of the community's day-to-day concerns. But I've never heard McDonnell, Bolling or Cuccinelli make any statements to that effect, and in fact I've heard at least Bolling defend the Dillon Rule. I guess where you stand depends on where you sit.

The most compelling argument I've heard for the Dillon Rule is that it's a useful economic development tool--it's easier to recruit new companies using one set of statewide regulations rather than countless variations by locality. But that by itself is not a good enough reason to tie up the time and resources of local officials with trips to Richmond to beg for more. We can preserve the positive aspects of the Dillon Rule without treating our elected officials like petulant third-graders.

Instead of incentivizing division and discord among localities, why not encourage cooperation? The General Assembly should close the power gap between forms of government and treat counties like legitimate governing entities. Then, offer new benefits to regional forms of government, such as considerations in the transportation funding formula and increased autonomy. To me, regionalism just seems to make more sense all around. Services as basic as landfills, recycling services and emergency response could be provided much more efficiently, and economic development might be an easier task when a whole region speaks with one voice.

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