We have reached the midpoint of the 2013 Session of the General Assembly. Crossover will occur on Tuesday, the 5th of February. The Senate must complete all work on Senate Bills and the House must act on all House Bills by that date. This week saw a flurry of activity on a number of major issues this year and on legislation I proposed.
As most readers know, the legislature confirmed Helen Dragas’ reappointment to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The vote was subject to a dramatic debate in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, although the end vote was not much in dispute. The confirmation process is often a perfunctory role of the legislature, and such a rigorous debate has never occurred over the reappointment of a member to a college or university board of visitors. There were nine negative votes in the Senate and 33 in the House.
In addition to the confirmation process, a number of modest measures were introduced in both the House and Senate to reform the governance structure of the Board of Visitors. Delegate Landes introduced a comprehensive bill to improve board governance and transparency and another bill to require faculty representation. Those bills have advanced. Delegate Toscano and I introduced similar bills that met different fates. Both of Delegate Toscano’s bills died in subcommittee. One of my bills died in committee, and the other came out of committee after being amended to only change the statutory quorum requirement for the UVA Board of Visitors.
This is the year we could pass a transportation package. As I have written over the years, there is nothing we can do to more dramatically improve Virginia’s economy than to develop a sustainable source of funding for transportation. The Governor’s proposal, while important simply because it bears the gubernatorial seal, is deficient in that it replaces the gas tax with a regressive sales tax and does little more than provide sustainable maintenance funding. Amended versions of his plan have progressed out of committee this week in both the House and the Senate. While I am pleased we are finally moving forward on transportation, we must ensure the final plan is sufficient to meet our needs for the next 20 years or more, not a short-term fix. You can expect that debates over transportation planning will be one of the dominant topics for the remainder of the 2013 Session.
The redistricting bill that was hoisted on the Senate two weeks ago remains unaddressed. The House has put the issue off until the 6th of February. In the meantime, the Senate passed my constitutional amendment to take redistricting out of the hands of legislators. As long as legislators draw their own districts, there is a built in conflict of interest. Partisan wrangling over district lines is exactly the sort of thing redistricting reform could prevent. Redistricting always has been a very ugly, partisan process regardless of the party in control, although the ploy this year is unprecedented. The elected officials choose their constituents under the current process. In a democratic republic things need to work the other way: people need to choose their representatives. Nonpartisan redistricting works in other states, including Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi. It can work here. The bill will be taken up in the coming weeks by the House, where it has been defeated in prior years in committee. I am determined to work on redistricting as long as I am part of the process, or until I get nonpartisan redistricting passed.
Over the next several days, the budget process will come to a head as both the House and Senate will present their amendments to the budget on Sunday, February 3. Budgeting in the odd year is not as critical as in the first year of the biennium. We have a budget in place for the 2012-2014 biennium, but every year we must make adjustments. The budget amendments will address major decisions important to my constituents, including Medicaid expansion, mental health funding, state employee compensation, library funding, and services for individuals with intellectual disabilities and dementia.
The most controversial legislation is often heard in the week leading up to crossover. I offer only a few of the highlights. We saw legislation pass out of committee to mangle our state Bill of Rights that expressly provides for the freedom of religion and protects us, and our faith, from governmental establishment of religion. The Senate bills to lift the ban on uranium mining and to provide for a severance tax on uranium were stricken at the request of the patron, thereby killing the bills. The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections defeated a bill to alter the way in which Virginia’s electoral votes are allocated on the same day it approved a measure requiring photo identification at the polls. The final attempt to alter last year’s mandatory ultrasound bill was defeated in a hastily scheduled meeting of the Senate Committee on Education and Health without any discussion or debate. The Senate passed Senate Bill 701 to codify protections against workplace discrimination for state employees. You can access all legislation at https://lis.virginia.gov/lis.htm. The next few days will remain busy and full of lively discussion in debate.
It continues to be a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can be of service, or if you would like to share your views or have questions, please contact me. I can be reached at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525.