With one week before the scheduled adjournment of March 12, the 2016 General Assembly is nearing completion on all major issues. In fact, it will be a surprise to me if we do not adjourn a day or two early this year. On two prior occasions, in 2000 and just last year, the legislature finished its business one day early. This year we may finish even earlier largely because one party controls both houses and we have avoided some of the highly contentious issues. Sometimes finishing early isn’t the right result. [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…]
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 46 day session is moving rapidly. Subcommittees and committees are meeting around the clock, which leaves little time for reflection. This week I will address a couple of the issues I am working on.
First, Senate Bill 1252 requires colleges and university employees to notify law enforcement officers within 24 hours of a report of a sexual assault or rape. Simply put, I do not believe our colleges and universities should be in the business of investigating criminal activity. The current process is flawed, and I am hopeful the deliberations this winter will yield some positive changes in how these serious crimes are handled on campuses throughout the Commonwealth.
An area of ongoing controversy is subaqueous lands, or river bottoms. Under Virginia law, land west of the fall line of the James River, river bottoms that were granted out by the crown prior to 1802, are the private property of the landowner. If they were not granted out, those lands are the property of the Commonwealth. This is an issue that has caused mountains of litigation and controversy over the years and resulted in the introduction of any number of bills that ultimately would have taken people’s property away from them. In 2013, I asked the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to convene a work group to examine the issue and develop some alternative means of dispute resolution that protects private property rights but also encourage landowners to open up these bottomlands to canoeists and fisherman.
Those discussions generated two ideas that I brought forward via legislation this year. The first bill, Senate Bill 1271, sets up a means for people to determine, short of going to court, and ultimately to arbitrate whether a crown grant exists. This is a totally voluntary process. If the landowner doesn’t want to go through this process, a landowner does not have to and does not affect ownership at all. The second bill would set up a process whereby a landowner could grant an easement across subaqueous land to the benefit of the Commonwealth, and incur a tax benefit if the public is granted use. Again, there is nothing mandatory about this bill and is solely designed to offer an incentive for those who may open up their property for the sportsmen. Both bills seek to provide additional tools to those involved in this contentious issue.
I continue on the quest of creating the best system of public mental health care in Virginia. The bulk of that work comes through the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century. The Subcommittee will not make recommendations until the end of 2015 and 2017. In the meantime I’ve introduced a number of bills on mental health.
Last year, I sponsored Senate Bill 261. Delegate Rob Bell introduced a companion bill in the House of Delegates. Both bills passed, directing the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to evaluate the way emergency evaluators are trained and assigned. Today I filed three bills and a $780,000 budget amendment to put into action the recommendations generated from this report and follow through with some of the important work we began last year. Evaluators in these circumstances are making critical decisions that may deprive an individual of his or her civil liberties. It is critical that they are highly qualified and trained.
In addition, I introduced Senate Bill 1270 after long discussions with UVA Law Professor Richard Bonnie. This bill is designed to improve the process for the appointment of an emergency power of attorney in the event of a mental health crisis by providing an alternative to current law. This bill proposes that DBHDS implement a pilot project utilizing this alternative method in the coming year.
I’ve also introduced Senate Bill 1263. This bill comes at the request of the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and is designed to improve the transportation of an individual for whom a temporary detention order has been issued. Senate Bill 1265 adds definitions to the real-time bed registry that was created last year. We want to ensure that the registry is updated as quickly as possible and accurately reflect the availability of psychiatric beds.
The idea of creating a state park in Highland County continues to be a priority. I have proposed a budget amendment with this in mind. This is not the year to find great success on budget amendments, and I am working several routes to try and find the funding to achieve this goal, because I think it will transform the economy of Highland County by creating a destination that will generate tourism and other associated business opportunities. Even though I know the money is not there for the state to fund the park’s creation this year, I have introduced the amendment because I don’t want people to lose sight of the idea.
This year I asked Senator Vogel of Fauquier County to introduce the redistricting amendment that I have carried for many years. She is chair of the committee, and it makes sense to put another face on the bill. I am pleased to report that bill passed out of committee earlier this week with only one no vote and should be voted on early next week on the Senate floor.
I’ve introduced Senate Joint Resolution 280 asking the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to consider a consolidation of all state law enforcement agencies under the Department of State Police. This is also an idea I’ve carried forward in the past.
Senate Bill 1261 is also an oldie but goodie and is designed to improve the judicial selection process.
There are certainly other bills that I have introduced and more than I am working on this session. It continues to be my great honor to serve you in the General Assembly. Do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance. You can reach me at PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected] , or (804) 698-7525.
This past week saw significant changes at the Virginia General Assembly. Nearly half way into the 2014 session two new senators were seated. Since both senators, Jennifer Wexton from Loudoun County and Lynwood Lewis from Accomack County, are Democrats, the balance of power shifted in the Senate of Virginia. With 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, the balance of power tipped to the Democrats now that we have a Democratic Lieutenant Governor in Ralph Northam.
Twice before in Virginia’s recent history, the Senate was evenly divided. In January 1996 the parties agreed to a power sharing arrangement. The committee chairs and majorities were staggered, with both the Democrats and the Republicans having what amounted to an equal say in the business of the Senate. That precedent was not followed when the 2011 elections yielded a 20-20 tie. Rather, the Republicans seized power and, for the first time in the history of the Senate of Virginia, threw members off committees. You might recall that I lost assignments to both the Committee for Courts of Justice and the Committee on Commerce and Labor during that upheaval.
This year, the Democrats followed the precedent from 2012. The Lieutenant Governor broke the procedural ties, and Democrats have claimed majorities on all but two committees and each committee chairmanship.
The result of the transfer of power is that my committee assignments have changed again. I have served on the Transportation Committee of the Senate since 2002, under chairs Marty Williams, Yvonne Miller, and Steve Newman. Earlier this week I was elected chair of the Transportation Committee. The chairmanship will give me a significant voice in the establishment of transportation policy throughout the Commonwealth. I still just have one vote on the Committee, but I will have more control over which bills are heard and the order of business.
I also gained two committee assignments. As a committee chair, I have a seat on the Rules Committee. This committee has a significant role regarding the conduct of business in the Senate and considers a wide variety of issues that are raised primarily with resolutions. Significantly, I have been appointed to the Senate Finance Committee. Without question, this is the most important committee in the Senate because it handles the budget and all legislation with a fiscal impact. A majority of bills and public policy matters require funding, and sometimes bills pass but are ineffective because money is not attached. My vote on the Finance Committee will give me and my constituents a significant voice in the conduct of government in Virginia. This is my 23rd year in the General Assembly and the first time I have been appointed to a money committee.
The work of the Senate Finance Committee is divided up by topic matter into eight subcommittees. I have three subcommittee assignments in the Finance Committee. First, I serve on the Transportation Subcommittee due to my chairmanship of the Transportation Committee and my long standing interest in transportation policy. Specific construction projects are not usually funded by the General Assembly, rather decisions about which projects go forward are made at the local level through MPOs and by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. However, this assignment will give me and my constituents a significant role in determining which policy areas are funded and how we move forward, particularly in the areas of rail and air space, a growing area of economic importance for the Commonwealth.
My second new subcommittee assignment is for Economic Development and Natural Resources. This subcommittee is very important to me because of my long standing interest in conservation and state parks, and my interest and efforts in the area of economic development. Some may recall that I introduced the legislation back in 1996 that codified the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. Any number of economic development projects have been funded through budget amendments I have introduced over the years. Historically, Virginia ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in spending on natural resources and state parks. You can expect me to work to increase funding there and to make sure that our economic development dollars are spent wisely.
My final subcommittee assignment is to the Public Safety Subcommittee. This is the subcommittee that decides what criminal justice or corrections initiatives, whether advanced through the Courts of Justice Committee, or elsewhere, are worth funding. Difficult decisions are made here because many worthy bills pass, but fiscal constraints require us to set priorities. Without question this subcommittee will involve some of the toughest decisions I will have to make.
I suppose many people wished the power sharing precedent of 1996 was followed. In fact, that is the model that would probably produce more collegiality and a better work environment. However, after the events of 2012 when multiple senators were thrown off committees, and the blatant power grab allowed issues such as the invasive ultrasound bill to advance, it was impossible to follow the earlier precedent. I am confident that the Senate can move on and work toward the goals of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We have vital work to do in the remaining five weeks.
A list of all of the bills I am working on this session is available here.
It continues to be my distinct honor to serve you in the General Assembly. This will be a busy session for me, and I look forward to your input throughout the process. Concerns, questions, or requests should be directed to my office at: PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.