The 2013 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is moving rapidly toward the crossover, the date when each house has to finish work on its respective bills. The short, 46-day session does not leave much time for delay or maneuver. Things move fast, and many issues of importance have already come up for debate.
This past week saw the initial committee consideration of Governor McDonnell’s appointments. Key among those appointments, at least to many of my constituents, was the reappointment of Helen Dragas of Virginia Beach to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. Many will recall the drama of this past summer, and I do not need to rehash the events concerning the firing and rehiring of President Teresa Sullivan. The Governor reappointed Mrs. Dragas to the Board of Visitors, and that appointment is subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.
The first leg of the legislative journey toward reappointment occurs in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, of which I am a member. The meetings are public, and I was surprised that not one person who had written or called me came to testify against the confirmation this past Monday. Several of my colleagues and I spoke, but we did not have sufficient votes to remove her name from the Resolution. Only Senators Janet Howell and Ralph Northam joined me in opposing the reappointment.
In my comments, I spoke to my belief that this General Assembly ought to be focused on the University’s central position to our mission to provide educational and economic opportunity to young Virginians. I relayed to my colleagues that this issue has resonated with my constituents and has brought great dishonor to the University. Central to that dishonor is the lack of transparency and the secretive manner in which the Board handled the events leading up to and following the President’s dismissal. The public needs to have confidence in its state institutions, and I told the committee that the only way to begin the process of healing, of restoring public trust in the University, was to replace Mrs. Dragas. The resolution will be voted on by the full Senate early next week before heading to the House of Delegates.
Bills I have introduced are working through the process as well. In fact, as of today, six of my bills have been reported out of committee. Those bills are as follows:
- Senate Bill 882 will ensure the state continues providing some level of funding to the public library in Clifton Forge.
- Senate Bill 884, which came about during a discussion with a constituent in Rockbridge County, will require notice be given when the water flow from certain dams increases significantly.
- Senate Bills 885 and 888 limit the number of inoperable vehicles that can be kept in public view on properties in Albemarle County and allow counties to enter into agreements with the Virginia Department of Transportation to not only remove signs in rights of ways but to retain civil penalties that are collected when those signs are placed illegally.
- Senate Bill 886 makes a technical change in the affordable housing statute for the City of Charlottesville.
- Senate Bill 887, which I introduced at the request of a constituent in Highland County, increases the distance a farm use vehicle can travel from 30 to 50 miles.
The votes on two bills have been delayed to allow for input and recommendations from stakeholders. Senate Bill 880 would require the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to inventory streams that are open to the public. Senate Bill 881, which I introduced following meetings with Rockbridge County officials, would allow localities to bill insurance companies directly for emergency services provided to automobile crashes on interstate highways. Both bills have generated visits from state agencies and other interested parties. I am hopeful the language is finalized quickly so that the bills can be heard next week.
As a member of the Privileges and Elections Committee, I often sponsor legislation related to the electoral process. This year, in addition to my continued attempts to establish a redistricting commission in Virginia, I sponsored Senate Bill 883 to require new voter cards be issued every year. This bill acknowledges the success of Governor McDonnell’s initiative in 2012 to send out voter cards prior to the election. In my view, the issuance of the cards limited the number of problems Virginia voters had with the new voter ID law. People move, precinct locations change, and voters would benefit from up-to-date information. I expect this bill will receive significant opposition, but it has not yet come up for a vote.
Senate Bill 906 was brought to me by general registrars and would establish a pilot project for the use of vote centers. Vote centers would combine two or more precincts in low turnout, primary elections, thus reducing costs to local registrars. The bill has made it out of subcommittee and should be taken up in full committee next week. The key, of course, is to ensure vote centers can be utilized without unduly confusing voters.
The situation at the University of Virginia was not just about the personalities involved. At a minimum, we should take the opportunity to review what happened to identify ways to improve governance at our colleges and universities. Senate Bills 1085 and 1086 were developed with the assistance of many constituents in the Charlottesville area and Delegate Toscano. While Governor of Virginia, Senator Mark Warner established the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments, which was later codified in 2005. One of my bills would make certain the Commission reviews and makes recommendations for all appointments, not just at the request of the Governor. The other bill makes certain changes to the composition and rules governing the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, including requiring a nonvoting faculty representative on the Board and ensuring one of the appointments be a person with experience in higher education. Unfortunately, the bills have been caught up in this polarized situation surrounding Mrs. Dragas and are in trouble.
I have introduced several other bills, but none of the remaining bills have come up for consideration as of this morning. A complete list of my bills is here.
Thank you for allowing me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can be of service to you, or if you would like information about this process, please contact us at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525.