The 2016 Session of the General Assembly is now in warp speed. We are merely two weeks from adjournment, and it seems everybody is in two or three places at the same time. Whether you are presenting a bill before a committee, hearing other presentations in other committees, meeting with constituents or other individuals who have an idea they wish to discuss, or taking part in long floor sessions, this is a wearisome time of the session – and a dangerous time. Bills are amended, deals are cut and things happen quickly. One simply has to pay attention. [Read more…]
The 2016 Session of the General Assembly has crossed the midpoint. Only three weeks remain to complete our work. Crossover came and went, and as usual, tough votes were put off until the end. I voted no on a couple, but “no” doesn’t always mean “absolutely not.” [Read more…]
Crossover for the 2016 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is at hand. On Wednesday, February 17, all bills that remain under consideration will have crossed over to the other body for action. We will begin the process of serious negotiation on the budget and will have a better idea of which bills stand the best chance of becoming law.
This is crunch time in the legislative session, and like human nature dictates, the tough decisions are often delayed until the last minute. We’ve seen some of the more controversial issues of the day arise in the last few days just before crossover.
The notion of proffers is not one that many rural areas must deal with, but it is important in growing communities. The only localities in the area that I serve that routinely consider proffers are the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Proffers essentially are concessions that a developer or builder makes when that developer wants to have property rezoned. A proffer typically is intended to pay for the infrastructure that the locality will be required to build to support the new development that will come about with the rezoning. Proffers are an essential tool to ensure schools, transportation and public safety infrastructure, and other community services such as libraries are there to support the new development. However, the issue of proffers has not been without controversy.
Any number of times over the course of my years of service, this issue has come before the General Assembly. In general, I have sided with localities, preferring to let local governments make decisions about local growth. This year, I voted in favor of a proffer reform bill that dealt only with residential development. It says that a cash proffer can only be accepted or requested if it is for infrastructure built to serve the new development. In my view, the measure basically meets my notion of the intent of proffers. Moreover, any time an issue was raised objecting to any portion to the bill, amendments were offered. I realize the process moves fast and that the bill is not perfect, but I have confidence in the direction it is headed. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-8.
Another significant issue that will be decided in the next few days involves the Certificate of Public Need (COPN) process by which hospital beds and a number of medical services are added to a particular facility or in a region. The applicant must show a demonstrated need in the region. Critics decry the process because it reduces competition and ensures a monopoly, to a certain extent, for certain services in different regions of the Commonwealth. Proponents of the system argue that because hospitals are required to provide a certain amount of charity care, particularly in the emergency room, they should have the protection afforded by the COPN process. The argument is that without this process, someone else could open an ambulatory center that provides highly profitable service, such as joint replacement, and avoid the less profitable services the hospital provides, such as obstetrics and emergency care. This would potentially close hospitals, as they would lose profitable business.
The issue has been highly contentious for a number of years. This year has seen a flurry of bills and at least three general approaches. While I would need to develop a complex spreadsheet to fully illustrate all of the bills, I wanted to provide a brief overview.
One approach follows more than a year of study dictated by legislation adopted by the General Assembly last year. This moderate approach (see Senate Bill 641 and components of House Bill 350), which is supported by the Administration and by the state hospital association, removes certain services from requiring approval such as new obstetrical or nuclear imaging services, but maintains the overall protection of the COPN process for hospitals. A second approach promoted by the HCA hospital network would allow deregulation of the NICU and other services. The hospital in Low Moor is an HCA facility. Lewis-Gale in Salem for years has attempted to establish a NICU through the COPN process, an application I have supported. A number of other bills have been introduced with such targeted changes. The physicians are supporting a third approach (see SB 561 and HB 193) that begins phasing out the COPN process.
The bills present very different ideas. I prefer to take a moderate approach to this to protect the hospitals as much as possible. Health care is a huge part of the economy, and I cannot imagine anyone would argue that hospitals are not vital to that system. But our hospitals are getting hammered from both sides of the debate surrounding the Affordable Care Act. The Act was funded in part by a reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates, which some argue overpaid for services, but nonetheless were built into the bottom line of many hospitals. In addition, federal payments to hospitals who serve the indigent were reduced given the intent of the Act for everyone to be insured. On the other side of the argument, since Virginia has failed to expand Medicaid, our hospitals are not seeing the benefit of providing care for an estimated 400,000 people who are currently uninsured. Expanding Medicaid would have brought about $1.1 billion of federal funding into Virginia, which would have helped the bottom line of hospitals. Given these economic pressures on our hospitals, I am concerned that the cherry picking that would result from the loss of the COPN process would result in significant financial difficulties for our hospitals and perhaps result in a reduction in services or closure.
The western part of the area I represent is served by hospitals in Lexington, Low Moor and Hot Springs. None of those hospitals offer obstetrics. And, each of the hospitals faces a certain amount of economic uncertainty given the current challenging health care economy. The two hospitals in Charlottesville are a huge part of the economy in the eastern part of the district I serve. Health care centers in Albemarle, Highland and Nelson Counties also play an important role. I am afraid that radical change to the COPN process would increase the challenges faced by each of those facilities.
The Senate rolled all of the bills into Senate Bill 561, which was subsequently continued to the 2017 Session. The House, however, has reported several of the bills out of committee but has postponed taking a final vote on the floor.
I heard from a number of constituents regarding Senate Bill 671. If you or a loved one does not suffer from Lyme disease, you may not be aware of this piece of legislation. The bill as it came to the Senate floor would prevent the Board of Medicine from disciplining a physician for following a protocol maintained on the National Guideline Clearinghouse for the treatment of Lyme disease. In my view, the bill sets a very dangerous precedent. If we provide this exemption for Lyme, why would we not provide it for other treatment protocols and diseases? I just don’t think that the legislature needs to be in the business of practicing medicine or micromanaging the Board of Medicine.
The reality is that there is no effective treatment for Lyme disease that has been medically proven. I understand people’s frustration as I have a family member who suffers from symptoms related to a tick bite. While I appreciate the intent and feel for people looking for physicians to try alternative treatment methods, I just do not see this bill as accomplishing that goal. I voted against the bill, which now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration.
Of course, there are many other issues before the General Assembly. Committee work has slowed down as we near Crossover. Serious debates lengthen our floor sessions now due to the number of controversial bills on which we have delayed action.
Please do not to hesitate to contact me if I can be of service or if you have views on any issues before the General Assembly. The phone number in Richmond is (804) 698-7525 and the email is [email protected]. It continues to be my pleasure and honor to serve in the Senate of Virginia.
We are rapidly approaching the midpoint of the 2016 General Assembly Session. In legislative lingo, the midpoint is called the crossover, that period when Senate bills crossover to the House of Delegates and House bills crossover to the Senate.
To this point, much of the work has been handled by committees that meet around the clock. My committees shifted some this year. I am no longer on the General Laws and Technology and the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committees, but I was appointed to the Courts of Justice Committee. Courts meets twice a week and handles a large volume of bills. I continue to serve on the Privileges and Elections and Transportation Committees.
The problem has been that on Wednesdays, Courts typically meets all afternoon. In fact, one week we did not complete work until after 9:00 p.m. Transportation meets the same afternoon. As a result, I miss the work of the Transportation Committee. I am not the only member with such a conflict. I carefully review the docket and materials sent to me and leave a proxy with another member to ensure my voice counts on those bills.
Current Issues in the General Assembly
Aside from the topics I’ve covered in past updates, I have been actively working on a number of issues in the Virginia General Assembly:
Recognizing conservation officers
For many years in an effort to recognize the work of conservation officers at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, I’ve tried to increase retirement benefits and give them parity with similarly situated state employees. This year I introduced legislation to accomplish this goal again. The bill was carried over to 2017.
Statue of Limitations for prosecution of sexual misdemeanors involving children
I sponsored legislation for the third year in a row to lengthen the statute of limitations for prosecutions of misdemeanors of a sexual nature involving children to a year past the 18th birthday of the child victim. Typically, statutes of limitations on misdemeanors are a year from the date of the offense. This year, after receiving scrutiny and support from the State Crime Commission during the interim, the bill will pass.
State Park in Highland County
Another project of several years has been to organize and develop a state park in Highland County. I once again introduced a budget amendment to accomplish this goal. This year might be the right year since the Governor included a bond package in his introduced spending plan. However, there are rumblings about long-term revenue projections of our budget. The bond itself is in some jeopardy. Last week I had a chance to make my case for a state park in Highland County, and I will continue to press the issue.
Tax credit for farmers who donate to food banks
I am privileged to work with First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe and Delegate Ben Cline of Rockbridge County to carry important legislation this year to create a tax credit for farmers who donate food crops to food banks. This could help stock food banks at a time when they are having to adjust for the increasing costs of food and declining federal subsidies, in addition to helping local farmers.
Loan forgiveness for public mental health workers
The work of the Mental Health Joint Subcommittee goes on through the end of 2017, and our major work is still ahead of us. However, this year, I introduced a bill along with Delegate Joseph Yost of Giles County to create a fund for loan forgiveness. The program is intended to increase the number of individuals seeking to enter this field and also to attract and retain workers within our public mental health system – our local community services boards or the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The Education and Health Committee passed and referred the bill to the Senate Finance Committee due to the $2.5 million cost associated with the proposal. The bill is scheduled to be heard on Monday afternoon in subcommittee.
“Free fishing days”
This year I worked with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to make “free fishing days,” which the Department uses to encourage people to fish and to learn about Virginia’s diverse fishery, actually free. If Senate Bill 349 passes, streams stocked with trout will be included in these special days.
Addressing the rapid decline of pollinators
People who are familiar with my work know I have been concerned for a number of years about the rapid decline of pollinators. Pollination is critical to the agricultural economy and our food supply. This year I introduced legislation to create a workgroup, including various state agencies and the beekeeping and agricultural communities, to develop a balanced approach and strategies to address the decline. Thus far the various stakeholders have not been able to develop a consensus, and I am hopeful passage of this bill will be a catalyst for results. The bill passed the Senate with unanimous support and is awaiting action in the House of Delegates.
Changing the way judges are selected
I’ve worked on a couple of issues this year involving judgeships. As I referenced several weeks ago, I have introduced measures to increase the judgeships in the 25th Circuit and the 16th Circuit. I have also introduced legislation, again something I have worked on for a long time, to change the way judges are selected from the highly politicized process we have now to one based on merit.
You may track all legislation with the Legislative Information System or at Richmond Sunlight. As I have explained to many people, legislators make the best decision based on the information they have available. Please never assume I have the best information. If you have an idea or input about an issue before the General Assembly, let me hear from you.
It continues to be honor to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. If I may be of assistance or you would like to visit, please contact us at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected].
The General Assembly session is moving along quickly. Committees meet early in the morning and late into the evening. The swirl of receptions, which has always accompanied the process, continues to occur, but they are less well attended than ever. Legislators are not only more conscious of the freebies, but the past week’s snow storm and resulting cancellations has backed up our work.
While at home in Bath County, we labored under a fairly modest snow storm for this time of the year; other parts of the state struggled. My friends in Highland County and in Charlottesville told me of accumulations of 18 inches or more. The Richmond area saw similar snowfalls, and some areas in Northern Virginia received over three feet of snow. Travel was treacherous and slowed to a snail’s pace. Once the snow stopped falling, snow disposal, particularly from urban streets, became a significant problem. The Governor has indicated this storm may have been the most expensive snowstorm in the history of Virginia. The clean up alone was estimated to cost $2 to $3 million per hour, in addition to the costs of preparing the roads for precipitation and public safety. Still the General Assembly churns on.
This week saw a major shift towards some compromise on guns, although the final deal is still up in the air. Many elected officials view the issue of guns in black or white terms. Legislators either vote for gun control or they vote to protect the Second Amendment. It is very difficult to find nuanced ground.
The Attorney General seemed to throw fuel on the fire last fall when his office conducted a study of the concealed carry laws in other states, as our law requires him to do, and determined that 25 states with which we have reciprocity have weaker concealed carry laws than Virginia. In fact, in some states even those who have been involuntarily committed to mental health facilities are eligible to carry concealed weapons. As I’ve explained to people before, there is nothing radical about the Attorney General’s actions. The law calls for the Attorney General in consultation with the State Police to determine with which states we should have reciprocal agreements and make a report to the Governor and the General Assembly. A lot of people do not like what he found.
In fact, the NRA made it their top goal in this legislative session to restore the reciprocity agreements. I have heard from many of my constituents who support that view. In the end, a very rare compromise appears close on this issue. Democrats and Republicans, gun control advocates and opponents, have come together on a tentative plan to restore reciprocity with the twenty-five states along with making strides on some gun control policies.
In Virginia during 2014, 112 homicides were the result of family and intimate partner violence. Over half of those deaths involved firearms. Just last year, four people died while an active protective order was in place. This proposed compromise removes firearms from the possession of those against whom protective orders have been issued. This is a major public safety achievement.
In addition, the deal takes a first step with respect to background checks at gun shows. We have debated and discussed the gun show loophole for over a decade. Private sellers, those who sell firearms but are not federally licensed dealers, do not have to submit their buyers to background checks. Only a small portion of weapons are sold at gun shows by private sellers, but it doesn’t take but one weapon for something tragic to occur. This agreement would require the State Police to provide background checks to any private sellers who voluntarily request one of their buyers. Many people will not be satisfied as this falls short of mandatory checks, but if an agreement is reached it will be a step forward.
Proposed changes to our gun laws have been an issue of incredible contention between a legislature controlled by Second Amendment advocates and a Governor who has campaigned for gun safety and gun control. The players were destined to continue to be at loggerheads. The compromise means that everybody gives something, and we make some progress.
On a much lighter note, today the Senate passed legislation I sponsored to designate Nelsonite as the official state rock. Last fall, a group of government and geology students from Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) came to me with this proposal. The students had done their homework. They garnered the support of the state geologist, the chairwoman of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors, our friend Connie Brennan, as well as Frank Friedman, the President of PVCC. Virginia is one of four states that does not have a state rock, mineral or gemstone. Nelsonite is named after Nelson County and had a significant impact on the local economy in the early 20th Century and is mined as far away as China. The bill was amended to include the American Dogwood as the state tree and the Northern Cardinal as the state bird. The General Assembly made those designations in the 1950s, but they were omitted inadvertently.
Earlier this week, Senate Bill 356 passed out of the Senate without opposition. The legislation directs the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to create a stakeholder group tasked with developing the Virginia Pollinator Protection Strategy. The goal is to promote best practices to protect our dwindling bee population. Landowners, beekeepers and farmers all have a shared interest in this regard, and I am hopeful my bill will receive the support of the House of Delegates.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Virginia General Assembly. If I may be of service, do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525. I look forward to hearing from you.