12/08/10: Marshal some courage on Dillon Rule

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE COMMISSION on Government Reform and Restructuring made its report to Gov. Bob McDonnell last week. The entire 147-page document can be viewed online at www.reform.virginia.gov. Some 130 recommendations were made, broken down into the four committees set up to study “the functions of state government in a more enterprise-wide approach.”

This is not the first such commission, nor will it be the last. Some of the recommendations have appeared before, such as the elimination of the Compensation Board, while others reflect the changing times, such as the adoption of a uniform social media policy. Many of the recommendations will require additional study, and the commission says it will deliver additional reports throughout the governor’s term.

No doubt this report will be used to guide the McDonnell administration in its legislative agenda. Top of the list is the recommendation to privatize the Virginia Department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control, a project that the administration is already pursuing. Changing the budget cycle — so that the incoming governor is not left with the budget of his predecessor — has been introduced in the General Assembly in the past and, so far, has not garnered enough support to pass.

The most interesting section is the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, chaired by Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim. The 14 recommendations include a review of mandates placed on the localities by the state, with an eye toward eliminating those that are obsolete or cannot be implemented.

Then there are recommendations like these:

  • Grant local governments the authority to provide for the cutting of grass and weeds on properties within their boundaries.
  • Permit localities to perform review and issuance of permitting for bus shelters.
  • Permit localities to determine the color of local public vehicles.
  • Grant localities the authority to install Watch for Children and school speed zone signs.

I call these the “hands off my Dillon Rule” recommendations. Included in the instructions to the commission by Gov. McDonnell was the duty to “maintain Virginia’s longstanding commitment to the Dillon Rule.” So instead of sweeping changes that would allow the localities some self-rule, we are left with recommendations to change the color of cars.

The premise of the Dillon Rule — that cities are corrupt political organs and therefore must be controlled by the legislature — may have been true in 1872, when its namesake, Judge John Dillon, issued his opinion.

Those who support the Dillon Rule often cite the effect that it has on our business community, as they are able to expect uniformity as they interact with various localities within the state. Few will mention that by holding such control, the legislature could eliminate localities “with a stroke of a pen,” as Dillon was quoted as saying.

In the 21st century, we should not be completely beholden to 19th century ideas. In the horse-and-buggy days, not only could Dillon likely not have anticipated cars, but I doubt if he could have anticipated that decisions about the color of them needed to be made at the state level.

The commission was crippled by the governor when he instructed them to keep their hands off the Dillon Rule, leaving them with the option only to nibble around the edges and make very specific “Father, may I” recommendations.

That may have worked in the 19th century, but if we are to remain competitive, we need 21st century solutions.

A loosening — with an eye toward the elimination — of the Dillon Rule would be a good start.