09/22/10: Antiquated rule discourages regional ventures

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

ALTHOUGH privatization of ABC has been the most talked-about portion of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, it is not the only topic the group is considering. The Intergovernmental Relations Committee, chaired by Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, is looking at one issue that could have wide-ranging implications: regionalism.

Virginia has a unique structure of 95 counties and 39 independent cities. Only three other cities independent of counties exist in the nation. Not only do the 134 localities in Virginia operate independently of each other but are quite often in competition. With rare exceptions, there are no shared services or resources. Localities lure businesses from other localities, sometimes a neighboring one. It generally falls on an individual locality to fund a project — like Nauticus in Norfolk, the Virginia Air and   Space Center in Hampton or the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach — despite the obvious benefits of those projects to Hampton Roads.

Making the case for a renewed effort toward regionalism is commission member John O. “Dubby” Wynne, vice chairman of the Council on Virginia’s Future and a former president of this newspaper’s parent company. He recently called the competition between localities — encouraged over the years by the state — “dysfunctional.” In a draft of a white paper prepared for the intergovernmental committee, Wynne and his colleagues refer   to previous studies on the issue. Few of those studies’ recommendations have been implemented. The paper opines, “We believe that the local politics of near-term self-interest has created a barrier that is difficult to overcome.”

One need only look at the recent dustup over the Department of Transportation’s $5 million Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel study to see this is the case. That VDOT didn’t consult with the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization prior to initiating the study had Fraim calling it an “end run on the decision-making process of the TPO by people who don’t agree with our   long-range plan.”

What’s really at issue here is that the self-interest of those on the Peninsula has collided with the self-interest of those on the Southside. That the best interests of the region are not considered first is no surprise. There are really no incentives for the localities to cooperate. There are few mechanisms to allow localities to come together to set an agenda for the region. And it is the state of Virginia that stands in the way.

“The Dillon Rule makes every community stand on its own completely,” Wynne said recently. Localities are prohibited by Virginia’s strict interpretation of the Dillon Rule from doing anything that the legislature doesn’t expressly give them permission to do. It is why the General Assembly spends time every year voting on such mundane things as whether Norfolk should elect its mayor, or what the income limits for real estate tax relief   should be. It is why localities are subject to more than 450 mandates from the state, right down to the square footage of the offices of local social services agencies.

Despite the recent revelations of misuse of taxpayer funds, widespread corruption in local government — one of the bases for the Dillon Rule — has all but disappeared.

Gov. McDonnell, in his State of the Union response earlier this year, cited the stance of our country’s founders: Government closest to the people governs best. He didn’t say that stops at the state level. It is time for Virginia to loosen the bonds of the Dillon Rule. The opportunity to improve the competitiveness of the commonwealth’s localities and regions depends on it.