Pricy Lobbying and ‘Spilled Blood’: The Inside Story of How Arlington Won a Veto in Richmond

(Updated at 10:45 p.m.) About a year ago at this time, Arlington looked to be in serious trouble down in Richmond.

In mid-March 2018, county officials faced the decidedly unpleasant prospect that they’d come out on the losing end of a bruising legislative battle with two local golf and country clubs.

One of the county’s foremost foes in the General Assembly had engineered the passage of legislation to slash the clubs’ tax bills, potentially pulling more than a million dollars in annual tax revenue out of the county’s coffers.

Arlington had spent years tangling with the clubs, which count among their members local luminaries ranging from retired generals to former presidents, arguing over how to tax those properties. Yet the legislation from Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District) would’ve bypassed the local dispute entirely, and it was headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

That meant that Arlington’s only hope of stopping the bill was convincing the governor to strike it down with his veto pen.

In those days, long before evidence of Northam’s racist medical school yearbook photos had surfaced, the Democrat was well-liked in the county. He’d raised plenty of cash from Arlingtonians in his successful campaign just a year before, and had won endorsements in his primary contest from many of the county’s elected officials.

Yet the situation still looked dire enough that the County Board felt compelled to take more drastic steps to win Northam to their side. The county shelled out $22,500 to hire a well-connected lobbying firm for just a few weeks, embarking on a frenetic campaign to pressure the governor and state lawmakers and launch a media blitz to broadcast the county’s position in both local and national outlets.

“It became apparent to all of us that every Arlingtonian had something at stake here,” then-County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “At a time when we were making excruciating decisions about our own budget, the idea that you would take more than million dollars and put it toward something that wasn’t a priority for anyone here was so frustrating.”

That push was ultimately successful — Northam vetoed the bill last April, and the county struck a deal with the clubs to end this fight a few weeks later.

An ARLnow investigation of the events of those crucial weeks in spring 2018 sheds a bit more light on how the county won that veto, and how business is conducted down in the state capitol. This account is based both on interviews with many people close to the debate and a trove of emails and documents released via a public records request (and published now in the spirit of “National Sunshine Week,” a nationwide initiative designed to highlight the value of freedom of information laws).

Crucially, ARLnow’s research shows that the process was anything but smooth sailing for the county, as it pit Arlington directly against the club’s members. Many of them exercise plenty of political influence across the region and the state, and documents show they were able to lean heavily on Northam himself.

“One would expect a Democratic governor to be highly responsive to one of most Democratic jurisdictions in the state,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “But this was a matter of great concern to a bunch of very important people in Virginia, and that may well be the reason why additional efforts were necessary.”

And, looking forward, the bitter fight over the issue could well have big implications should similar legislation ever resurface in Richmond.

“Structurally, this bill could absolutely come back someday,” Cristol said. “And the idea that a bill that has such deleterious consequences for land use and taxation in jurisdictions across Virginia could come back and garner support because of an effective lobbying interest is very much a real threat.”

A risky precedent?

Hugo kicked off the fight over golf course taxes in the state capitol by filing his bill in fall 2017, but the dispute had been percolating long before then.

Both the Army Navy Country Club (located along I-395 just past Pentagon City) and the Washington Golf and Country Club (near Marymount University along N. Glebe Road) had been fighting with the county’s real estate assessor for years.

Arlington officials sought to value the clubs’ based on the “highest and best use” of the land: in this case, as space for residential or commercial properties. That meant the county assumed that each square foot of land was worth about $12 — the two clubs control more than 370 acres of land, combined.

The county reasoned that land is exceedingly valuable in the 26-square-mile locality, where officials have trouble finding sites for schools and other public facilities, and ought to be treated as such. Residential properties near each club have often been valued at many times that amount, for comparison.

That means Army Navy was generally assigned a value of well north of $100 million over the years, with an annual tax bill hovering around $1.5 million, county records show. Washington Golf ranged in value from $42 million to $60 million, with a tax bill of $838,000 for 2017.

The clubs argued those tax bills were wildly unfair compared to other Northern Virginia golf courses, some of which are valued at a much lower rate. They claimed the high tax bills were forcing them to raise membership rates, putting a strain on members — in Army Navy’s case, many are active duty military or veterans.

So Hugo filed legislation to slash the valuation rate to around $0.50 per square foot, reducing the clubs’ annual tax burden by roughly $1.5 million, combined. The clubs also filed suit against the county in December 2017, challenging their 2014 property assessments.

But it was the legislative push that unnerved county officials the most. Losing the court case would impact just two property assessments in isolation (albeit valuable ones) — seeing the legislation pass could’ve opened the door for other landowners to follow the same playbook, they feared.

“It would set a risky precedent where any property owner who does not agree with their assessment could run to Richmond for a legislative fix,” then-Board member John Vihstadt warned a state Senate committee in February 2018.

Smooth sailing for Hugo’s bill

Cristol says the Board took the prospect of Hugo’s bill passing “incredibly seriously” from the moment it was introduced. She remembers the entire Board frequently checking in with the county’s state legislative delegation, and other lawmakers representing Northern Virginia, to make the county’s position clear.

Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District), who represents parts of Arlington, spoke forcefully against the bill in a Feb. 7, 2018 committee hearing in the House of Delegates. At the time, Sullivan said he “probably spent more time on this bill than any other bill this session.”

“To my way of thinking, a resolution between the parties is always better than this body imposing an outcome,” Sullivan told his colleagues on the House finance committee. “I believe the parties are on course, pardon the pun, to a resolution of this.”

Sullivan cited “ongoing, good faith negotiations” between the clubs and the county, arguing that two sides were in the process of settling the valuation dispute and averting the need for any lawsuit.

At the time, however, Arlington had yet to offer a settlement of the lawsuit to the clubs, or hold extensive negotiations with them.

A timeline drafted by County Attorney Steve MacIsaac for use in later lobbying efforts notes that the county didn’t hold its first sit-down meeting with club officials until mid-March. The two sides discussed some inspections of the properties over the month of February, while the legislature was in session, but offered no terms to resolve the matter until later.

And Hugo argued that his legislation was the only reason any negotiations were happening at all.

“The ‘ongoing talks’ never really started until the bill was introduced,” Hugo told the finance committee.

Hugo’s colleagues saw things his way. The bill easily passed the committee with bipartisan support, passing both the Senate and the House with a mix of Republican and Democrat votes a few weeks later. The bill was sent to Northam by March 16.

Four days earlier, the County Board signed a $15,000 contract with Capital Results, a Richmond lobbying firm, documents and emails show. The firm’s past clients range from the National Rifle Association to Major League Baseball to Tesla Motors, according to state records.

Capital Results’ duties would include “message development,” “thought leader engagement,” and “media relations,” according to the contract. Partner Bea Gonzalez took point on the operation.

Cristol says the decision to hire the firm was partly out of desperation, as the Board recognized that heavily Democratic Arlington might have trouble winning sympathy from the Republican-dominated General Assembly without some extra help.

“We knew we’d need members of the majority caucus, which can be a little hard for Arlington,” Cristol said. “This was an opportunity for some outside help to reach some in the other party.”

Plus, the county had to face off against plenty of lobbying from the clubs themselves — Washington Golf employed two lobbyists for the legislative session, while Army Navy retained four of its own, state records show.

Gonzalez gets going

Emails show that, by March 14, 2018, Gonzalez had leapt into action.

She began coordinating closely with both Cristol and Pat Carroll, the county’s main government affairs staffer in Richmond, with one main opening goal: funneling a slew of letters opposing Hugo’s bill to Northam’s office.

Not only did Gonzalez help draft a resolution for the Board to pass condemning the bill, but she helped craft letters for all manner of Arlington politicians and community leaders about the country club legislation.

Sheriff Beth Arthur, Clerk of Circuit Court Paul Ferguson, County Treasurer Carla de la Pava, former Del. L. Karen Darner, the School Board, the heads of firefighter and police unions and local PTA presidents all communicated with Gonzalez about sending letters to Northam.

She drafted the letters and, in many cases, local leaders would send them onto the governor as their own, the emails show.

“At this point it is a numbers game [with] the number of letters and emails received,” Gonzalez wrote to Carroll on March 27.

Gonzalez also worked extensively with state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) to draft an op-ed and then place it in the Washington Post. It eventually ran on March 30, under the headline, “Virginia country clubs don’t need these tax breaks.” Gonzalez also helped Cristol draft her own op-ed on the matter, though it’s unclear if it was ever published.

Farnsworth said that, given the outsized influence of lobbyists around the capitol, it should hardly be a surprise that they may also be doing a little ghostwriting for politicians.

“Lobbyists draft bills, so why wouldn’t they draft op-eds?” he said. “Cynicism with respect to the authors of opinion columns or legislation is not generally misplaced.”

Earning some eyeballs

Earning media attention was another key part of Gonzalez’s strategy. The emails show she worked to secure Cristol interviews with TV and radio outlets alike and prep her for each one — she even worked with county staff to draft news releases on each stage of the legislation’s development.

And Gonzalez also endeavored to generate some more grassroots opposition to Hugo’s bill. While she reached out to a variety of different community activists, she found the most success with Annette Lang, who worked with the progressive group “We of Action Virginia.”

Lang and Cristol had chatted extensively about the golf course issue during the “March for Our Lives” gun safety demonstration in D.C., and Cristol forwarded her contact information to Gonzalez. From there, Gonzalez and Carroll provided her with talking points against Hugo’s bill and Lang whipped up support as part of a new group: “NoTaxSubsidies4Clubs.”

“It struck me that it’s really inappropriate for the General Assembly to step in on something like this, so I got kind of jazzed about it,” Lang told ARLnow. “Which is strange, because it’s a rather dry issue.”

Lang and her fellow activists began writing to state lawmakers about the issue, and sent letters to the editor along to local news outlets. They even took out ads blasting the bill in the Sun Gazette, including one pictured at left.

And when it came time for one of Northam’s regular appearances on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” radio show, Gonzalez convinced Lang to call in, at Cristol’s urging. The hosts took her call during the March 28 broadcast.

“My question is, do you think real estate tax assessments should be established by local elected officials with disputes resolved in the courts, or should they be imposed upon by state legislators with disputes resolved by the state legislators that are not elected by the locality?” Lang asked.

Northam commended her for having a “good grasp of what we’re dealing with right now,” and vowed to “step in and take action” only if the county and the clubs couldn’t strike a deal.

Northam feels the heat

The governor’s tone during the radio show provided a good indication of how his staff was approaching the situation behind the scenes.

Emails show that Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, wrote to Cristol later on March 30 to get contact information for the clubs’ leaders. He said he planned to send an email “out to the group to encourage dialogue between the parties.”

But Northam’s appearance during the WTOP program also hinted at some of the pressure he was feeling to let the bill become law.

“Something I am sensitive to is a lot of these members are veterans,” Northam said. “A lot of them have protected our lives and have limited resources, and so the memberships have gotten fairly unreasonable, and that’s why this needs to be addressed.”

Emails between Gonzalez and Carroll indicate that the governor, himself an Army veteran and Virginia Military Institute graduate, was hearing the argument quite frequently that, without a slash in tax bills, the clubs would become unaffordable for their military members.

“[Former Arlington Del.] Bob Brink says that the governor is hearing from veterans,” Carroll wrote to Gonzalez on March 23. “Not sure yet how many.”

“Yes, veterans are calling in — and all of the VMI network too,” Gonzalez replied.

Cristol remembers being confused at hearing such arguments. “The idea that we would support veterans by giving tax breaks to country clubs, rather than investing tax dollars in services to support veterans felt bizarre to me,” she says now.

Nevertheless, it was clearly a powerful argument in the clubs’ favor. Hugo referenced the issue several times during committee debate; a March 3 op-ed on the conservative Virginia politics website Bearing Drift accused Arlington of “using an unfair application of tax policy to willfully run United States military veterans out of the county.”

Lang recalls several legislators telling her that they’d heard similar overtures. Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District) told Lang in an email that “I am receiving voicemails from veterans urging me to support this bill and angrily demanding to know why I voted against it.”

“This misleading campaign is hypocritical and disappointing,” she wrote on March 25.

Some of the pressure from veterans was even directed Cristol’s way.

Someone tweeted at her on March 28 urging her to support Hugo’s bill based on what it would mean for veterans. She responded that “I’m honored to represent the >12k veterans living in Arlington County. I don’t think asking them to foot the bill for tax breaks for country clubs is a sign of respect.”

That tweet did not go unnoticed among the country clubs’ supporters. A few days after Cristol’s social media post, Carroll wrote to Gonzalez, saying she’d heard about the tweet directly from Suzette Denslow, Northam’s deputy chief of staff.

Denslow had gotten a call from Edward Mullen, one of the lobbyists representing Washington Golf, who was upset about that message. And Mullen is no stranger to the Northam administration — he served on the governor’s transition team, and personally donated $1,500 to Northam’s gubernatorial campaign.

Carroll wrote to Denslow to reassure her that the clubs and the county were working together and making progress on a settlement.

After the veto, a ‘good relationship’?

Regardless of any heat Northam might’ve been feeling, the governor came through on Arlington’s side by April 9, his deadline for acting on the bill.

He vetoed Hugo’s legislation, but delivered a warning in a statement attached to the decision: “I encourage the parties to continue negotiations to find a solution so that similar legislation will not be necessary in the future.”

This prompted rejoicing from the Arlington contingent, with one cautionary note.

“I spilled blood on this one,” Favola wrote to Gonzalez, Carroll and other county officials. “There is nothing left for a redo, so please reach a settlement with the clubs.”

Cristol followed up the next day with proposed strategies on how to sustain the governor’s veto, fearing that Hugo might try to muster the votes to override Northam’s decision. That would require a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, a heavy lift considering the bill didn’t originally pass with that much support.

Still, emails show Carroll and Gonzalez exchanged ideas about which local lawmakers might be well positioned to whip support for the veto.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez feared that Hugo was marshaling his own opposition to the veto as late as April 16.

“Been texting with Hugo, and he may be leaning on giving a long [floor] speech I think,” she wrote to Carroll. “So we need to be sure to be prepped.”

The county even agreed to extend its contract with Capital Results that same day. Gonzalez charged Arlington another $7,000, documents show.

“The veto being sustained was not at all something we took for granted,” Cristol said.

Ultimately, Gonzalez’s fears weren’t realized. On April 19, she wrote to a group of county officials that Hugo had decided not to contest the veto.

Six days later, the clubs and the county struck a deal to avert the lawsuit, according to an email from Army Navy’s chairman to his members.

The county agreed to reduce its valuation of the courses, and refund some of their past tax bills — the changes cut Army Navy’s tax bill by about $600,000 last year, while Washington Golf saved about $400,000. Word of the settlement made it to ARLnow by May 2.

Cristol says the ultimate outcome was undoubtedly the one the county had hoped for, but she added that there were certainly moments where county leaders felt “great frustration and disappointment” about the how the debate proceeded. Plainly, the whole saga left some hard feelings all around.

“[The clubs] chose, unfortunately, to take their case to Richmond and sue us at the same time,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “Not the way to make friends and influence people, in my view.”

That’s not to say the experience left the clubs and the county entirely on bad terms, however.

“We are trying to maintain a good relationship with the county and hope to maintain that good relationship in the future,” Raighne Delaney, Army Navy’s secretary-treasurer, told ARLnow. Washington Golf’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

That being said, Cristol remains wary that the county could find itself doing battle with the clubs in Richmond once again, should that relationship deteriorate.

After all, she notes that Hugo — a Fairfax Republican who has frequently clashed with the county on all manner of issues — “is still in the General Assembly.”

“People in Clifton or other parts of the state could always decide they know better how to tax open space in Arlington,” Cristol said.

Main photo via Facebook

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National Progressive Group Launches Fundraising Effort to Support Challengers to Favola, Lopez

One of the country’s leading progressive activists and researchers is launching a new fundraising push for primary challengers to two Arlington lawmakers.

Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress, announced yesterday (Wednesday) that his organization would be launching “The Progressive Virginia Project,” an effort to raise cash for four candidates in Virginia’s statehouse races this fall. Among the group set to benefit from the fundraising is Nicole Merlene, who is challenging state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) and J.D. Spain, who is looking to unseat Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District).

In a tweet describing the new program, McElwee wrote that his group is seeking to elect “progressives who are fighting for a Virginia where Dominion Energy doesn’t set the agenda.”

The utility company’s influence in Richmond has become an increasingly controversial issue for the state’s Democrats in recent years, with many (Lopez included) swearing off contributions from Dominion. The General Assembly helps regulate the company, convincing many lawmakers and activists that it’s inappropriate to then rely on Dominion’s largesse when election season rolls around.

https://twitter.com/SeanMcElwee/status/1103313125246414848

Any money taken in by the program will be divvied up among Merlene, Spain and two other candidates: Del. Lee Carter (D-50th District), the legislature’s lone Democratic socialist and a fierce Amazon opponent, and Yasmine Taeb, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35th District).

McElwee was previously a leading voice in supporting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent progressive candidacy in New York, and launched a similar initiative during the 2018 midterms to elect several other candidates in statehouse races across the country. In all, his group was able to raise more than $448,000 to support races in eight states.

Data for Progress wrote on the new fundraising page that it picked the four candidates not only for their opposition to Dominion, but their support for a “Green New Deal, universal healthcare and racial justice” in Virginia.

https://twitter.com/SeanMcElwee/status/1103315361582276608

Merlene, who up until recently held leadership positions with the Arlington County Civic Federation and the county’s Economic Development Commission, has framed her run against Favola as a chance for a new generation to take the reins in Richmond.

In addition to criticizing Favola’s acceptance of Dominion cash — she’s taken $9,500 from Dominion over the last eight years — Merlene has blasted her work as a lobbyist while also serving as a senator. Favola runs a lobbying and consulting firm representing influential local institutions like Virginia Hospital Center and Marymount University.

Spain has also sworn off corporate cash in his challenge to Lopez, but that doesn’t provide quite the same contrast between the candidates. Lopez has refused money from both Dominion and Amazon (though he has taken Dominion money in past years), and draws most of his campaign cash from progressive groups.

Spain, currently the president of Arlington’s NAACP, has focused his campaign thus far on providing fresh representation in Richmond, and beefing up support for affordable housing and schools in the South Arlington district. He has not, however, attacked Lopez over his much-discussed consulting work for an ICE contractor, which McElwee highlighted in his support for Spain. The activist has made calls to “Abolish ICE” a central part of his work, prompting a broader debate within the Democratic party about the agency’s role.

It remains to be seen, however, just how much traction either candidate has gained in their primary challenges thus far — statehouse candidates won’t report how much cash they’ve raised again until April 15. A June 11 primary will decide the intraparty contests.

Photo of Merlene, left, via Facebook

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New Bill Would Let County Waive Fees for Affordable Developments, A Key Change Sought by Advocates

A new bill just passed by state lawmakers could soon allow localities like Arlington to start waiving many fees for new affordable housing developments, a change that advocates expect could have big impact on the county’s housing crunch.

New legislation backed by Dels. Lamont Bagby (D-74th District) and Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) would let officials across the state pass ordinances to do away with any building permit fees or other local levies on affordable housing plans, in a bid to ease the construction of such projects.

The bill unanimously passed the state Senate last week, after earning similarly swift approval in the House of Delegates, and now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for his signature. The legislation was designed as part of a broader package of bills aimed at bringing housing costs down, due not only to rising concerns about Amazon’s impact in Northern Virginia, but also to new research showing the Richmond and Virginia Beach areas with some of the highest eviction rates in the entire country.

“Every Virginian deserves a safe place to call home,” Bagby wrote in a statement. “By supporting more affordable housing, we can address the devastating impacts of Virginia’s high eviction rates.”

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions, told ARLnow that the county doesn’t currently waive fees for affordable developments, but could well embrace such a tactic in the near future.

She points out that a coalition of affordable housing advocates called for the county to take just such a step in a 2017 report outlining potential strategies for officials to meet their own goals for building more reasonably priced homes.

Arlington officials have already struggled to meet those goals for creating homes guaranteed to remain affordable to renters of modest means, known as “committed affordable” units, prompting housing advocates to pen the report and press for progress. And with Amazon bringing its 25,000 (or more) highly paid workers to the county, Winters believes its conclusions are all the more important for leaders to consider.

“The report estimated that waiving ‘permit and tap fees’ for affordable housing projects would save $1.4 million per year, or allow the addition of 16 more committed affordable units each year,” Winters said.

That would only be a small change in the grand scheme of the county’s housing needs — the county created or preserved 515 affordable homes last year, short of the 585 homes officials hope to produce each year — but housing researchers still expect waiving such fees would make a meaningful difference.

“Although the total amount of fees imposed by local governments during the development review process can vary by locality, affordable housing developments operate under extremely complex financing mechanisms and tight margins,” said Andrew Clark, vice president of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Virginia, wrote in a statement. “Reduction or elimination of these local fees could be a significant incentive for a private-sector development considering an affordable housing development and could also help incentive the private-sector developer to re-invest those savings into amenities, building materials or labor.”

The report, titled “Fulfilling the Promise: Meeting the Production Goal of Arlington’s Affordable Housing Master Plan,” uses the recently completed “Columbia Hills” project backed by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing as an example of how county fees impact such projects.

APAH spent about $91.1 million on the project in all, but that included close to $701,000 in fees including building permit fees, sewer and water levies and zoning review costs.

“If all of these fees had been waived for this affordable project, it would have reduced the costs of development, freeing up resources for the development of eight (8) additional [committed affordable units],” the advocates wrote.

The report also notes that other cities around the country have already adopted such a strategy. In Austin, Texas, for instance, the city waives fees on a sliding scale based on what portion of a development’s homes are priced to be affordable to people making less than 80 percent of the area median income.

Of course, it might be a tough pill to swallow for county leaders to forego any revenue while times are tough for Arlington financially.

But officials have seen some reason for optimism about the upcoming budget recently, and Winters says county workers have already assured her that they plan to examine the impacts of waiving affordable development fees as part of a broader study of Arlington’s permitting process.

Photo via @APAH_org

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Arlington Schools Could Soon Start Class Before Labor Day, As Key Legislation Finally Moves Ahead

Arlington school leaders could soon gain the power to start classes before Labor Day, as some long-stymied legislation finally seems set to pass in the General Assembly.

State lawmakers are gearing up to finally repeal a provision widely known as the “King’s Dominion Rule,” which has barred school systems across the state from starting class before Labor Day for the last 30 years in a bid to provide Virginia’s theme parks with a robust pool of potential patrons, and student workers, each summer.

Many schools have already earned “waivers” to disregard the rule (including large school systems like Fairfax and Loudoun counties) and momentum has built in recent years to do away with the law entirely. Arlington officials have been particularly keen on kicking off class early, hoping to better align high school calendars with the slew of standardized tests that dominate the latter half of each school year.

And while it’s not a done deal just yet, Arlington could well get its wish this year. The House of Delegates and state Senate have now both passed a bill from Del. Roxann Robinson (R-27th District) to allow school systems to start classes up to 14 days before Labor Day — so long as they give students the Friday before the holiday off.

Lawmakers will now need to determine the bill’s next steps. General Assembly leaders could opt to send it along to Gov. Ralph Northam as it is, or convene a conference committee for additional negotiations as a competing bill from Sen. Amanda Chase (R-11th District) heads to the House floor for a vote.

Some local Arlington legislators — Sens. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) and Janet Howell (D-32nd District) — were backing narrower bills to give only Northern Virginia localities the power to control their school calendars. But those efforts were quickly rolled into Chase’s legislation instead, as it became clear that the tourism industry and school administrators might be able to strike a compromise on the legislation.

“We think this is a good compromise,” Chase told a House committee yesterday (Monday). “Our desire is really this to give the power back to the school boards, the parents and the PTAs, as opposed to big business determining when our young people go to school.”

Both bills would grandfather in school systems that already have waivers to start more than two weeks before Labor Day, a key demand from school leaders. Those localities also wouldn’t be required to give students the Friday before the holiday off.

Chase, and groups representing the state’s school boards and superintendents, said they would’ve much preferred a full repeal of the law to let school systems set calendars however they’d like.

By contrast, representatives of the state’s theme parks say they’re not thrilled with the prospect of schools starting the full two weeks before the holiday, but insisted on students receiving a four-day weekend as a bit of a compromise.

Tom Lisk, a lobbyist for the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, told House lawmakers yesterday that the interest group is generally opposed to the legislation, but wouldn’t condemn the effort in its entirety.

“There’s an opportunity to work to find middle ground still,” Lisk said.

As of yet, however, there’s not much sign that lawmakers will bend to pressure from the hospitality industry on the bill.

The House’s education committee altered Chase’s bill to make it identical to Robinson’s on a 16-6 vote yesterday — should the House then pass the legislation, the final decision will rest with Northam. Or, the House could always alter Chase’s bill, setting up the potential for a conference committee, where a small team of negotiators would hash out the differences between the two pieces of legislation.

Regardless of just how lawmakers work out the details, Arlington’s School Board will be watching the proceedings quite closely. As the group set the calendar for the 2019-2020 school year on Feb. 7, Board member Barbara Kanninen told staff that she’d be “very interested” in seeing options for a pre-Labor Day start next year, so long as the legislature follows through.

“Ultimately, I’m a big fan of year-round school, and this gives us a chance to start working in that direction,” Kanninen said.

File photo

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BREAKING: Hope Threatens to Work to Impeach Fairfax, After Another Woman Accuses Lt. Gov. of Sexual Assault

(Updated at 9:30 p.m.) Arlington Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District) now says he’ll introduce articles of impeachment to remove Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax from office on Monday if he doesn’t step down, now that another woman has come forward to accuse the second-most powerful Democrat in the state of sexual assault.

Hope announced the move tonight just a few hours after Meredith Watson accused Fairfax of raping her when the pair attended school together at Duke University in 2000. She wrote in a statement that the details of her assault mirrored those laid out by Vanessa Tyson, who previously said that Fairfax assaulted her in a Boston hotel room in 2004.

Democrats had been hesitant to call for Fairfax to step down since Tyson’s statement, but pressure is now mounting for the lieutenant governor to step aside. Friday night, the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses released a joint statement, urging Fairfax to resign.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus issued a similar statement.

The bulk of Virginia’s congressional delegation has also demanded Fairfax’s resignation, including Arlington Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th District).

“Lt. Governor Fairfax has also shown exceptionally poor judgment in his handling of these allegations,” Beyer and Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-11th District), Elaine Luria (D-2nd District), Abigail Spanberger (D-7th District) and Jennifer Wexton (D-10th District) wrote in a statement. “He repeatedly attacked his accuser, he reportedly used vile and degrading language to describe her, he mischaracterized an investigation into the encounter, and he sought to blame others for events in his own past. These actions do not meet the standard to which we hold Virginia’s highest elected officers.”

For now, it would seem Fairfax is resisting pressure to step aside.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has been similarly steadfast in the face of calls to resign over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, writing an email to state employees today saying he does not plan to step down. The fate of Attorney General Mark Herring (D) is also unclear, after he revealed he wore blackface while in college.

Earlier today, Hope posted a video on Twitter urging Northam and Herring to learn from their experiences, but stopped short of demanding their resignations. He’d previously supported calls for Northam to step down, but was silent on Herring, who he previously endorsed in Herring’s early stages of mounting a campaign for governor in 2021.

Hope said in the video that he believed Fairfax’s first accuser and thought an investigation was necessary.

Around 9 p.m. Friday, Hope held a press conference in front of Arlington Central Library in Virginia Square, laying out his case for the impeachment of Fairfax, should he refuse to resign. The press conference was attended by CNN, CBS, NBC and local D.C. stations.

Photo via Facebook

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County Democrats, Activists Plan ‘Listening Sessions’ to Discuss Issues Fueling Virginia Scandals

County Democrats and local activists are planning a series of community forums to talk through the issues of race and sexual assault that have roiled Virginia politics for the past week.

With all three of the state’s top Democrats — Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — now mired in scandal, many within the party are searching for a way forward. There’s no telling whether any or all of the group will resign, leading to quite a bit of uncertainty at the top ranks of the party’s leadership.

In the meantime, the county’s Democratic Committee is planning two “listening sessions” covering some of the matters at the heart of the scandals in Richmond.

The first will focus on “racial equity” and will be held tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m. at the Walter Reed Community Center (2909 16th Street S.).

The revelation that a racist photo appeared on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, and the governor’s subsequent admission that he once wore blackface, kicked off the current crisis plaguing state government. Herring’s admission yesterday (Wednesday) that he too once donned blackface added further fuel to the political fire.

The next listening session will focus on sexual assault, after a college professor accused Fairfax of assaulting her in Boston in 2004. The lieutenant governor has faced a bit less pressure to resign than Northam, but some have started to ramp up calls that his accuser deserves to be heard.

The event will be held on Sunday (Feb. 10) at 6:30 p.m. at the Arlington Mill Community Center (909 S. Dinwiddie Street).

A group of local activists also plan to hold a listening session to discuss the Northam controversy and its “implications for those who want to be allies in the fight for racial justice,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

The event will include four panelists, and will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington (4444 Arlington Blvd) at 7 p.m. on Friday (Feb. 8).

Photo via Facebook

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GOP Ditches Proposal for More Affordable Housing Cash, Angering Advocates Concerned About Amazon

Republican lawmakers have scuttled Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to ramp up state funding for affordable housing, a move that’s irked advocates hoping for more state help as Amazon starts to move into Arlington.

GOP leaders in both the state Senate and House of Delegates have now put forward budget proposals without the $19.5 million spread across two years Northam had hoped to see flow into the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, a program offering low-interest loans for developers hoping to build reasonably priced housing.

Though the fund would be available to applicants across the state, the governor’s effort to massively ramp up cash flowing into the fund was broadly seen as a small way the state could prepare for Amazon’s expected impacts on the housing market across the Northern Virginia region.

“We are outraged that selected members of Virginia’s money committees stripped this critical support for housing for Virginia families,” a coalition of 40 affordable housing advocacy groups wrote in a statement. Signatories include the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, the Arlington Housing Corporation, the Alliance for Housing Solutions, the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network and the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

“At a time when the state is approving $50 million in subsidies to Micron and $750 million to Amazon, it is wholly appropriate and necessary to invest $19.5 million in housing,” they wrote.

The Senate’s proposed budget includes just $1 million for the fund over the next two years, while the House proposal includes no cash whatsoever.

Northam had planned to fund the increase as part of a suite of proposals to use $1.2 billion in new revenue generated by the federal tax reform passed in 2017. But Republicans, who hold narrow majorities in both chambers in the General Assembly, have been steadfast in removing those spending proposals from the budget as part of a broader fight over the tax revenues, arguing that the state would be better served by sending the money back to some middle-class taxpayers.

“We started building our budget with guidelines to remove from consideration any revenue based on the federal tax changes and to eliminate any spending based on that revenue,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-76th District), the head of the powerful House appropriations committee. “We are continuing our multi-year efforts to responsibly invest in a stronger economy, provide more funding and flexibility to local schools and make college more affordable.”

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) was hoping for an even larger, $50 million influx into the fund on a one-time basis, yet that push is seemingly facing an uphill battle given the latest GOP budget proposal. He’d also proposed a bill to establish a permanent funding stream for the fund to avoid yearly appropriations battles, but that died on a party-line, 4-3 vote in a House subcommittee.

The budget is still a long way off from being finalized, however. The House and Senate still need to reconcile the differences between the two proposals and, ordinarily, Northam would have a chance to negotiate for his spending priorities with Republican leaders.

But with the governor still facing pressure to resign, and Virginia’s two other top elected officials now engulfed in scandal, there’s no telling just how the remainder of the General Assembly session will play out. It’s currently set to wrap up on Feb. 23.

File photo

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Morning Notes

Good News for Ed Center Project — “It may not come with all the bells and whistles, but county school officials should be able to convert the Arlington Education Center building into classroom space without exceeding the $37 million budgeted for the project. Two estimates… came in slightly under budget to turn the former school-system headquarters into classroom space for 500 to 600 students.” [InsideNova]

Succession Question for Va.’s Leaders — Under fire for each of their own controversies, resignations by Virginia’s Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general could end up triggering a special election or even elevating a Republican state lawmaker into one of the top jobs. Meanwhile, the chaos in Richmond was the lead story on the national evening news this week — twice — and made the cover of this morning’s New York Post, with the headline “Virginia is for Losers.” [Politico, Twitter]

Amazon and Homelessness — “Along with the promise of 25,000 high-paying jobs will come more expensive housing, and possibly, more people priced out of homes, and some, falling through the cracks. Seattle, where Amazon is based, has a huge problem with homelessness. Will Seattle’s problems become ours?” [WUSA 9]

Possible Presidential Candidate Lives in Arlington — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is considering a run for president, reportedly rents a three-bedroom home in Arlington with her husband, for their time in the D.C. area. The current rent is estimated at $4,500 per month. [Heavy]

Merger of Banks with Local Branches — “BB&T will buy SunTrust Banks for about $28 billion in an all-stock deal, the companies said on Thursday, creating the sixth largest U.S. lender in the biggest bank deal since the 2007-2009 financial crisis.” [CNBC]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Herring Admits to Wearing Blackface in College, Prompting Shock, Silence from Democrats

Democrats across Virginia have been shocked by yet another scandal today (Wednesday), after Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he also once donned blackface at a college party.

Herring called a sudden gathering with the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus this morning to deliver the news, then released a statement to that effect shortly afterward. Herring said he dressed up in a wig “and brown makeup” in order to imitate a rap artist when he was in college, explaining it was due to a “callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”

“It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then,” Herring wrote. “That I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt.”

His admission comes as politicians of both parties continue to press Gov. Ralph Northam to resign for similar reasons, after the discovery that a racist photo appeared on the governor’s medical school yearbook page and Northam’s subsequent admission that he once wore blackface rocked the state capitol. The man in line to replace Northam should he step down, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has become mired in scandal as well since then, as a woman has come forward to accuse Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004.

The attorney general’s disclosure leaves the state’s top three elected officials in limbo — should all three resign, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would be in line to become governor.

Herring said in his statement that he would have “honest conversations and discussions” about whether he’d seek to stay in office, as both Northam and Fairfax have so far sought to do. Herring joined virtually all of the state’s Democrats in calling on Northam to resign soon after the discovery of his yearbook page, but other Democrats have yet to demand that the state’s top lawyer step down with the same speed that they called for Northam’s job.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine expressed shock and surprise at the revelation when reporters questioned them about it this afternoon.

Other state lawmakers have yet to comment on Herring’s admission, including Arlington’s delegation or local Democratic committee.

The news could also torpedo Herring’s nascent campaign for governor — he’d already announced plans to run for the top spot in Virginia politics in 2021, and earned the early endorsement of local Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District) a few weeks ago. Hope did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Herring’s admission.

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Northam Signs Amazon Incentive Deal, Finalizing Key Piece of Plan to Bring Tech Giant to Arlington

Embattled Gov. Ralph Northam has signed a bill to send up to $750 million in incentive cash to Amazon, quietly sealing the oft-discussed deal to bring a new headquarters to Arlington.

Northam put pen to paper on the legislation last night, a day before it was set to become law without his signature. An identical companion bill is still pending in the state Senate, but Northam’s approval and the General Assembly’s overwhelming support of both pieces of legislation likely means its passage is a mere formality.

Unlike the massive media circus Northam convened to herald Amazon’s selection of Crystal City and Pentagon City for a massive new headquarters, the governor signed the incentives bill without so much as a press release. The governor is currently facing relentless calls to resign, after the revelation that a racist photo appeared on his medical school yearbook page and his subsequent admission that he once wore blackface during a dance competition.

But even that scandal was not enough to derail the completion of the Amazon deal, which Northam and his staffers took the lead in negotiating alongside a small group of state lawmakers.

“This is an investment in the growth of Virginia,” Amazon spokeswoman Jill Kerr wrote in a statement. “It will help diversify the economy and serve as a catalyst for drawing in other businesses and sought-after jobs. We believe the establishment of our headquarters in Virginia and 25,000 new, high-paying jobs, is a benefit to the entire commonwealth, and we are excited for what the future holds.”

Under the terms of the deal, state officials will send the tech giant $550 million in grant money to defray the company’s tax burden, so long as Amazon comes through on its promise to bring those 25,000 jobs to Arlington between now and 2030. Amazon could earn another $200 million if it adds another 12,850 jobs at the new headquarters through 2034, but it’s not committed to doing so.

The legislation just approved by Northam may be the single largest piece of the county’s offer to Amazon, but it’s far from the only sweetener state officials dangled to attract the company.

Two transportation projects promised as part of the deal — a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro station and an expansion of the Crystal City-Potomac Yard bus rapid transit system to Pentagon City — recently won tens of millions in state funds, though three remaining transportation improvements still need to find funding.

Officials also agreed to invest $800 million over the next 20 years to help state universities hand out 25,000 degrees in high-tech fields, in a bid to provide a “tech talent pipeline” that could fuel Amazon’s new headquarters. A Senate bill establishing the program passed that chamber unanimously yesterday (Tuesday), while an identical companion in the House of Delegates also passed that body on a 92-5 vote.

Finally, Arlington officials need to sign off on their own incentive deal with the company, designed to send about $23 million to Amazon over the next 15 years. The money will be drawn from an increase in hotel tax revenues expected to be driven by Amazon’s arrival.

The County Board had long planned to consider the issue at the end of the month, but has since backed off that timeline in favor of examining the deal no earlier than mid-March.

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Legislation Allowing for New Regulation of Dockless Scooters, E-Bikes Gains Steam

New legislation working its way through the General Assembly could set new state standards around dockless scooters and e-bikes, giving localities like Arlington full authority to ban the vehicles on sidewalks and regulate where they’re parked.

A bill from Del. Todd Pillion (R-4th District) unanimously cleared the House of Delegates Monday (Feb. 4), setting the stage for state lawmakers to pass their first regulations governing the devices since they began popping up in Arlington and other urban communities around the state last summer.

The legislation shouldn’t change much about the county’s current dockless vehicle pilot program, which the County Board created last fall to set new standards guiding the use of the suddenly ubiquitous scooters. But the bill would codify into state law many of the regulations the county has already created as part of the program.

Perhaps most notably, the legislation would allow people to ride scooters and e-bikes on sidewalks, unless a local ordinance specifically bans the practice. The county has barred scooters from both sidewalks and trails as part of the pilot, and this bill would allow Arlington to take the next step and pass its own law doing so once the program wraps up.

“Under this, we can have the ability to adopt an ordinance that takes care of all of our specific issues,” said Pat Carroll, the county’s main lobbyist in Richmond, during a Jan. 29 House committee hearing on the bill.

The legislation also bars scooter and e-bike riders from parking the vehicles “in a manner that impedes the normal movement of pedestrian or other traffic or 456 where such parking is prohibited by official traffic control devices,” another key headache for county officials. Arlington staff have set up some “scooter corrals” around Metro stations to encourage the orderly parking of the devices, but otherwise don’t have the ability to enforce where the vehicles are parked beyond bringing complaints to each company individually.

The legislation also caps all scooters at a top speed of 20 miles per hour — Arlington currently mandates a speed cap of 10 miles per hour, which initially irked some owners of the vehicles who’d hoped to use a 15-miles-per-hour cap instead.

Finally, the bill gives other localities until Jan. 1, 2020 to set up their own pilot programs for the dockless devices — once that date passes, companies will be able to deploy the scooters and bikes without abiding by any sort of pilot, much as Bird did when it dropped its scooters in Arlington back in June.

In general, the scooter companies seemed broadly pleased with the legislation. Lobbyists for several dockless vehicle companies spoke in support of it at the Jan. 29 committee hearing, and the firms were certainly well represented in Richmond — state records show that Bird has hired five lobbyists on its behalf, while Lime has three, Lyft has two and Uber (which owns Jump scooters) has six.

“We know for a lot of folks it’s a complicated issue around a new and emerging technology and we look forward to continuing to work with all legislators and stakeholders,” said Ryan O’Toole, a lobbyist representing Lime.

The legislation now heads to the state Senate, where lawmakers have until the end of session on Feb. 23 to take action on the bill.

Should it clear that hurdle and head to the governor’s desk, it’s anyone’s guess who will be waiting to sign it — Gov. Ralph Northam is still facing an overwhelming chorus of voices calling on him to resign over revelations that a racist photo appeared on his medical school yearbook page, while new allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax complicate any designs he might have on the governorship.

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Arlington Democrats Join Near-Unanimous Calls for Northam to Resign, As Governor Presses to Stay

Gov. Ralph Northam continues to resist an overwhelming chorus of voices calling on him to resign his post today (Monday), including virtually all of Arlington’s Democratic leadership.

Northam, a Democrat, has experienced a dizzying reversal in his political fortunes since revelations late Friday that a photo of one man wearing a KKK uniform and another wearing blackface appeared on his medical school yearbook page.

The governor initially released a statement acknowledging he was indeed pictured in that photograph, leading to near-unanimous calls for his resignation Friday night. But in a hastily convened press conference Saturday afternoon, Northam reversed himself, claiming he is now confident he is not pictured in the racist photograph and that it was placed on his yearbook page by mistake.

However, Northam did confess to once donning blackface as part of a dance competition in 1984 while impersonating Michael Jackson. That admission, combined with his sudden reversal, only served to intensify pressure from party leaders that Northam must give way to his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th District) was one of the few elected officials to stop short of demanding Northam’s resignation ahead of the press conference. But Arlington’s lone congressman released a statement immediately after the governor’s comments saying he’d expected Northam to resign Saturday, and instead wants him to go.

“Virginia has a painful past where racism was too often not called out for its evil. The only way to overcome that history is to speak and act with absolute moral clarity,” Beyer wrote in a joint statement with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th District). “It is for that reason that the governor must step aside and allow the process of healing to begin under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.”

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey added that Northam’s explanations at the press conference “strain credulity” and urged him to step down as well.

“Even after giving him the benefit of many doubts, I was struck by his inability to accept responsibility and articulate any concrete steps to promote healing in our state,” Dorsey wrote in a statement. “Someone who has grown as Mr. Northam professes would have recognized that he has lost the confidence of so many Virginians along with his most ardent supporters… And Democrats and progressives, please don’t think that a Northam resignation cures what ails us. Our work to build systems that recognize the dignity, value and importance of all persons remains unfulfilled.”

Del. Mark Levine (D-45th District) wrote in a newsletter to constituents that he doesn’t believe Northam to be a racist, but that the governor’s changing stories undermined his confidence in Northam’s leadership going forward. State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) expressed similar concerns, saying that an “important bond of trust has been broken.”

“What Northam said Saturday may well be true,” Levine wrote. “But at this point, how can he possibly lead Virginia?”

Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner also issued statements pressing him to resign after the press conference, as has the rest of Virginia’s Democratic members of Congress. Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus, the House of Delegates’ Democratic caucus, Senate Democrats and Virginia’s Democratic Party all issued similar demands after Northam addressed the media.

The Arlington Young Democrats wrote in a statement that they believe “Gov. Northam can no longer serve effectively and must resign immediately” after the press conference, while the county’s full Democratic Committee called for his resignation before it (and its Twitter account has since retweeted a variety of demands that he resign after he spoke to reporters).

The rest of Arlington’s state legislative delegation has yet to re-up their statements demanding Northam’s removal, but they unanimously supported their caucuses’ calls for the governor to step down in social media posts ahead of his press conference.

County Board member Katie Cristol also issued a similar statement Friday.

Beyer’s predecessor and longtime Rep. Jim Moran was one of the few voices defending the governor Sunday.

“I do disagree with their judgment because I think it is a rush to judgment before we know all of the facts and before we’ve considered all of the consequences,” Moran said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Northam said Saturday he’d consider resigning if he felt he could no longer govern effectively, but it’s unclear what would happen should he refuse to do so. The General Assembly could look to impeach Northam, though constitutional scholars are split on whether this controversy would rise to the level of misconduct required for impeachment.

Should Northam ultimately step down, Fairfax would become just the second African American governor in Virginia’s history, and its second youngest as well.

Virginia governors are generally limited to one term in office, but Fairfax, who was widely expected to run for governor in 2021, could be in the unusual position of filling out Northam’s remaining two years in office, then running for a full four-year term. Scholars are also debating the logistics of that matter, and just how Fairfax would find a new lieutenant governor should he ascend to Northam’s seat.

Photo via @GovernorVA

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Lawmakers Overwhelmingly Support Incentive Bills to Bring New Amazon Headquarters to Arlington

State lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved an incentive package designed to lure Amazon to Arlington, sending legislation to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk that will direct hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funds to the tech giant over the next 15 years.

Virginia’s House of Delegates passed a bill on the matter by an 83-16 margin today (Monday), after the state Senate signed off on the legislation with a 35-5 vote last week. Northam will ultimately have the final say on the issue, but considering that his administration helped broker the deal with Jeff Bezos’ firm in the first place, it now seems a sure bet that the company has the state’s support for a massive expansion in Pentagon City and Crystal City.

The legislation sets up a “Major Headquarters Workforce Grant Fund” to hand out the payments, designed to offset state taxes Amazon would incur should it set up a massive new headquarters in the county. In all, the bill would send $550 million to the tech giant between now and 2030, so long as the company delivers on its promise to bring 25,000 high-paying jobs to the area.

If the company can come through with another 12,850 jobs after that, Amazon stands to earn another $200 million in incentives, for a total haul of $750 million attached to the project.

Northam and his negotiators promised a variety of transportation improvements around the proposed headquarters in order to make Arlington seem especially attractive to the company, in addition to investments in tech education programs at state universities. But those measures will likely be included as part of the state budget, or funded through other state programs, leaving the incentive bills as the clearest chance for the General Assembly to have its say on Amazon’s arrival.

“When it comes to Arlington and Alexandria, I believe this is exactly what they want,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-76th District), a member of a powerful panel of lawmakers who worked with Northam to hammer out Virginia’s offer to the company, during a brief floor debate today.

While the incentive legislation never faced much in the way of serious opposition, it did attract dissenting votes from Republicans and Democrats alike. Six Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House opposed the bill, while all five state senators to vote against the measure were Republicans.

Notably, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) was the lone member of Arlington’s legislative delegation to vote against the bill.

Part of the company’s headquarters will be based in his South Arlington district, and he’s already raised concerns about how Amazon will disrupt the area’s housing market. He also chose to send back campaign contributions from the tech giant, after Amazon shelled out cash to all of Arlington’s lawmakers and many other prominent state leaders.

“The thing I keep hearing about over and over again are the prospects of displacement,” Lopez said. “This has been a problem for a really long time. HQ2 has just shown a bright light on it.”

Lopez commended some of the planned investments in housing affordability measures that Northam is promising as part of his offer to the company, but he says that “neighbors are worried about being displaced now, long before money creates any new housing.”

Experts across the region say that it’s no sure bet that Amazon will suddenly drive up all home prices and force renters out of the county, but they do believe it’s a distinct possibility that low- and middle-income people could feel a squeeze from the company’s arrival. And with Arlington and Alexandria committing to just limited affordable housing measures on top of the state’s efforts, some lawmakers do indeed see reason for skepticism.

“Those provisions are too little and too late,” said Del. Lee Carter (D-50th District), an intense Amazon opponent and the legislature’s lone Democratic socialist. “Even if construction were to be completed right now, it’d be too late for some neighbors in my district.”

Others still, Republicans and Democrats alike, questioned the wisdom of handing over such large incentives to a company owned by the world’s richest man. But the potential of the deal to bring so many jobs to the region, with a corresponding flow of tax revenue to local governments, was too promising for many lawmakers to pass up.

“We put together one of the best business deals I’ve ever seen in my 20 years of economic development experience,” said Del. Matthew James (D-80th District) during a committee hearing on the legislation last week. Like Jones, he helped negotiate the deal with Northam’s team.

The House also acted today to combine two identical Amazon incentive bills into one before sending the legislation to Northam, which should remove the need for the Senate to consider a version of the bill to originate in the House. Once this year’s legislative session ends on Feb. 23, the governor will have a month to decide whether to sign or veto the bill.

In the meantime, Arlington officials have yet to consider their own package of incentives attached to the deal, totaling about $23 million in grant funds over 15 years. The County Board plans to take that matter up no sooner than its Feb. 23 meeting, but some members have recently begun suggesting that they could push the issue into March instead.

Photo via @Osubi_C

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Lawmakers Revive Push to Raise Taxes for Metro Funding, A Key Priority for Arlington Officials

A pair of state lawmakers are pushing to revive a proposal to raise some Northern Virginia tax rates to fund Metro, a key priority of Arlington and other localities around the region feeling a budget squeeze.

A bill now backed by Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th District) and Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) would bump up taxes slightly on real estate transactions and hotel stays in the jurisdictions that benefit from Metro service. The legislation is broadly similar to Gov. Ralph Northam’s push to raise those rates last year, as lawmakers squabbled over the best way to find a dedicated funding stream for the troubled transit service.

That effort failed, even as state lawmakers did agree on a bill to send $154 million to WMATA annually, as part of a first-of-its-kind, three-way deal with Maryland and D.C. to send dedicated money to Metro each year. Republicans, led by Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District), insisted on pulling cash away from other sources instead of raising taxes to pay for the deal.

Primarily, that change redirected funds from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a regional body that hands out sales tax money to help localities fund major transportation projects. Arlington officials, in particular, were irked to see the group lose cash, as many were counting on the NVTA to help the county fund major transportation projects while Arlington’s own budget picture grew a bit grimmer.

One of the main projects the county was hoping to fund with NVTA money — a second entrance at the Crystal City Metro station — is now set to receive millions in state funds, thanks largely to its inclusion in the deal to bring Amazon to the area.

But Arlington officials have also had to push out plans to build new entrances at the Ballston and East Falls Church Metro stations, in part due to the NVTA’s money problems. The County Board included a request for just this change as part of its legislative wish list for the new General Assembly session, and local Democrats have broadly been receptive to renewing this fight in the months since Northam’s effort failed.

The governor himself previously told ARLnow that he’d seek to bring back the tax increases to restore money for the NVTA — his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this piece of legislation.

Should it pass, the bill would send about $30 million back into the NVTA’s coffers each year, according to documents prepared for the Commonwealth Transportation Board. However, the NVTA has estimated its annual funding losses due to the Metro deal as closer to $100 million each year.

“We appreciate Del. Watts’ efforts to restore funding to the NVTA,” Executive Director Monica Backmon told ARLnow via email. “We have not conducted a detailed analysis of the bill at this time. However, we anticipate discussing this bill and others at the Feb.14 authority meeting.”

A NVTA spokeswoman added that Watts’ bill is the only one introduced this session to restore the group’s funding via the tax increases.

But with Republicans still holding narrow majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, the bill could well face an uphill battle.

Notably, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th District) assigned the legislation to the House’s Rules Committee, a group of powerful lawmakers. While other committees are balanced to reflect the partisan makeup of the House, the Rules Committee is dominated by Republicans on an 11-6 margin, leading many Democrats to accuse Cox of sending bills to the committee to expedite their failures.

The group is also unique among House committees in that it can send bills directly to the floor for a vote, rather than casting a ballot on whether or not to advance the legislation. That allows Cox to force a vote from the full House on a bill, should he choose to do so.

The committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill, however.

File photo

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New Bill Could Change Arlington’s Powers to Ticket Parked Cars, But Backers See Other Purpose

(Updated Friday at 12:45 p.m.) New legislation working its way through the General Assembly could soon let Arlington, and other large Northern Virginia localities, start hiring private contractors to ticket parked cars for minor violations like expired license plates — but the lawmakers backing the bill say they introduced it for a slightly different purpose.

Currently, only county police can hand out such violations. But identical bills just introduced down in Richmond by state Sen. Dick Black (R-13th District) and Del. Karrie Delaney (D-67th District) could allow private parking enforcement staffers in large counties like Arlington to hand out those tickets too — if the localities opt in for the change.

At least, that’s how Arlington County Attorney Steve MacIsaac reads the bill, according to a county spokeswoman. Specifically, he believes that the legislation “would allow Arlington to enforce expired plates and other such violations on parked vehicles, and to hire non-law-enforcement uniformed personnel to carry out such enforcement.”

“It would be up to the County Board, should this bill become state law, to decide whether it wants to take advantage of this broadening of the county’s authority,” Board spokeswoman Mary Curtius told ARLnow.

But the bill’s backers say they introduced the legislation for to make a difference far outside of Arlington. Black and Delaney both represent portions of Loudoun County, where they’re targeting the change.

The legislation specifies that any locality with more than 40,000 residents has the power to hire contracted workers to enforce parking violations, rather than relying on police officers for that purpose. Current law only gives cities with more than 40,000 people that authority, leaving Loudoun and other large counties a bit stuck.

“This bars counties from contracting out enforcement services, forcing members of their already overworked police offices and other uniformed personnel to use their working hours checking parking hours and enforcing parking meters,” Delaney said during a House of Delegates subcommittee meeting last Thursday (Jan. 10).

As Loudoun prepares to welcome its first Metro stations in the coming years, with the Silver Line gradually expanding out to Dulles International Airport, county officials want to hire some extra help to enforce parking around the new stations. Jeffrey Gore, a lobbyist hired to represent Loudoun in the legislature this year, assured the Senate’s transportation committee yesterday (Wednesday) that plenty of other cities have made such a change, without incident.

“It’s not traffic violations, it’s just parking ordinances,” Gore told lawmakers. “Richmond does this, Virginia Beach does this. But Loudoun can’t do this, Fairfax can’t do this.”

But one outspoken political observer in Northern Virginia, political strategist Ben Tribbett, is blasting the bills as a “huge revenue grab” and compares them to another program in Fairfax County meant to step up the enforcement of car registration fee evasion.

An aide for Delaney did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss her bill, or Tribbett’s criticisms. However, county police spokeswoman Ashley Savage stresses that it wouldn’t have such an impact in Arlington, where police can already enforce such violations on parked cars.

Regardless of those claims, both bills are steadily advancing.

Black’s bill passed the Senate’s transportation committee on an 8-3 vote, and could soon head for a floor vote. Meanwhile, a House transportation subcommittee unanimously voted to advance Delaney’s bill, sending it to the full committee for review.

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