The midpoint of the 2015 General Assembly Session has passed. We are nearing crossover, the point when the Senate and House of Delegates must complete work on bills generated by its members. While the budget remains the focus, a number of controversial issues have come before the Senate thus far.
With respect to mental health, there are some issues that have to be worked out. A house bill sets up a study for whether emergency room physicians should have the ability, now performed solely by CSB evaluators, to determine whether one should be subject to a temporary detention order. The participation of ER doctors is already being studied by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) and by the joint subcommittee I chair. Nevertheless, it is somewhat in conflict with legislation I sponsored as a result of the DBHDS study on the qualifications and training of emergency evaluators. My sense at this point is that we will try to work out the differences, but it may be wise to take the cost of improving the program into consideration and try to have the Governor incorporate the changes into his budget and legislative priorities next year.
Senator Mark Obenshain sponsored a resolution to establish charter schools in the Constitution of Virginia and grant decision-making authority to the State Board of Education. I voted against the measure, as I have in the past. Charter schools have a place in our educational system, but unless we develop a different funding source I am not willing to strip local school boards of the authority to determine whether the creation of a charter school is best for their community. Public charter schools would no doubt be funded through the current educational funding stream, and the money would come out of the public schools in the locality where they are located. Therefore, I am not willing to substitute the state’s judgment for that of the local school board.
There has been a lot of promise and a lot of discussion in charter schools. We want children to have the best outcome possible and the best hope for positive outcomes in the future. However, our obligation as a Commonwealth is to make certain every child has an opportunity to succeed. The best way to do that is to make certain our public schools are as strong as possible. Looking around the country at the charter school movement, the results are mixed in states where charter schools are more prevalent. I am not encouraged that charter schools are the answer to addressing the needs in our public school system.
Senator Tom Garrett introduced Senate Bill 1132 to allow guns on school property by concealed carry permit holders after school hours. I voted against the bill because I think it sends the wrong signal. We banned firearms from public school property years ago, and I do not see any reason to change that policy. Over the years I have been an advocate for the rights of law-abiding citizens to own and possess firearms. However, there are limits to everything. Schools need to be a place of safety for young people. In addition, the legislation would have required private schools to allow firearms on their premises. Many of the private schools are run by churches, and I do not think the state should override churches in this regard.
A number of bills of interest relating to energy and power companies are still pending before the legislature. The first, Senate Bill 1338, sponsored by Senator Emmett Hanger would repeal a 2004 law that gave natural gas companies the right to enter onto private property, prior to the exercise of eminent domain, to conduct a survey to determine if the property is suitable for a pipeline. Frankly, the utilities can already do this with permission. I voted against the law in 2004 and am co-sponsoring the bill because I do not think the state absent exigent circumstances has the right to give private companies or individuals the right to come onto the property of someone else without permission. It has effectively legalized trespass and is totally unconstitutional, in my view.
Senate Bill 1349, which is sponsored by Senator Frank Wagner, would remove two of the major energy suppliers in the Commonwealth, Dominion and American Electric Power, from much of the regulation that are currently subject to in exchange for a temporary rate freeze. There is no freeze proposed or promised for the entire period of the deregulation. I am interested in the debate on this bill, but I am inclined to vote no. Public utilities that essentially have a monopoly over services should be subject to regulation.
I pulled three bills this past week. The first was modeled after a Minnesota law that is designed to protect our declining number of pollinators. Bees are the bedrock of agriculture, and thus the economy. Recent declines in the number of pollinators are disturbing. The bill, which was designed ultimately to reduce bees’ exposure to toxins through more stringent labeling requirements, was pulled to give me more time to review the effectiveness of the Minnesota law.
The other two bills I pulled were the bills relating to subaqueous bottomlands. In recent years, Senators Petersen and Marsden, both from the rapidly growing area of Northern Virginia introduced legislation that would have effectively required bottomland owners to open up their land to fishermen and canoeists. I led the charge against those bills because I thought they were unconstitutional takings. However, in 2013 I requested the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources to direct the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to convene a working group of interested parties to see if there were any areas of consensus. The results of the study, issued in the fall of 2013, prompted the two bills I introduced this year.
The first set up a voluntary process for landowners to determine whether there is a crown grant and thus private ownership of the bottomland. There ought to be a process short of litigation for people to figure these things out. The second would have allowed those landowners to place their bottomlands in easement and receive a tax credit if they chose to open their land up for sportsmen. Both bills were totally voluntary and at the complete discretion of the landowner. An early drafting error fed a campaign of disinformation, and at the end of the day, I heard from many people about how the bills were forcing landowners to do something they didn’t wish to do. I also heard from some environmentalists who thought these efforts did not go far enough. At the end of the day, I decided life is just too short to try and legislate in an area where making anyone happy seems impossible.
Some other bills of note include the following:
- Senators Bill Carrico and Janet Howell have sponsored legislation to address pay issues for our dedicated members of law enforcement with the State Police and Sheriff Deputies. Pay raises and salary adjustments are a frequent request in these high risk jobs. The legislation this year is unique in that they offer a revenue source to fund those increases. Those bills remain in the Senate Finance Committee, and my sense is that the bills will languish there. I think the Committee is working to find a way to provide a two to three percent pay increase for all state employees.
- A constitutional amendment sponsored by Senator Rosalyn Dance would allow the General Assembly to establish a process for the restoration of civil rights to people who have been convicted of nonviolent felonies. Since I believe everybody deserves a second chance and there ought to be a pathway for people to restore civil rights, I voted yes. Current law gives the Governor alone the right to initiate this process. Frankly, the last four Governors (Warner, Kaine, McDonnell, and McAuliffe) have done a good job in restoring rights for those who have turned their lives around, but this is a process that should not be dependent on the Governor.
- Two highly contentious resolutions, SJ252 and SJ269, have generated significant debates, rallies, emails, and phone calls. Both resolutions call for a constitutional convention under Article V of the United States Constitution. One attempts to limit the scope of the convention to a Balanced Budget Amendment while the second sought a more general approach of reigning in the federal government. Given the uncertainty of whether the scope of the convention can be limited and how the delegates are selected, I intended to vote no. Both bills have effectively been removed from consideration.
The General Assembly also recognized the passing of two great community leaders, the Honorable James Brady Murray and Mr. Horton Beirne. Jim Murray was a highly respected businessman, conservationist, and former member of the House of Delegates. Horton Beirne was an active member in a number of community organizations and his church, and added to the significant family legacy in newspaper publishing with his work as the publisher of the Virginian Review. Horton’s love of the Highlands and his work for a better future were unsurpassed. Both are sorely missed by their loving family and friends.
Yesterday, I also had the pleasure of commending the Nelson County Future Farmers of America Farm Business Management team and the Nelson County Middle School Future Farmers of America Agronomy team for each placing second in their respective career development competitions at the 87th National Future Farmers of America Convention and Expo. Several of the students and their parents joined Coach Ed McCann, and the superintendent, Dr. Jeff Comer, on a trip to Richmond to be recognized for their accomplishments.
And on that happier note, I apologize for not issuing a column on January 30. There was a birth in my family that required me to travel out-of-state last week.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Please let me know if you if I can be of service to you in any way. You can reach my office during the legislative session at PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.