The 2015 Session of the General Assembly is history. While we passed over 1500 bills and resolutions, the Session will be remembered for a handful of things including reforming the transportation funding formula, adopting a new ethics bill that changes very little, and adjourning a day early. The Session will also be remembered for what it did not do. We failed, once again, to expand Medicaid and provide health insurance that we are already paying for through federal taxes to as many as 400,000 Virginians.
The budget was balanced and adopted on time. The budget included funding for a number of priorities such as pay increases for public employees, significant new funding for mental health services (drop off centers, child psychiatry, supportive housing, etc.), and an additional $10 million for financial aid at our colleges and universities.
But the budget does not include funding for Medicaid expansion, leaving over $2 billion that Virginians already pay on the table, money that could be providing health insurance to hundreds of thousands of Virginians, and creating jobs and economic activity. The budget even cuts the Governor’s modest proposal to provide services to the severely mentally ill by reducing eligibility from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 60 percent. Several hundred people who signed up already will receive one year of care and then be cut off, precisely the thing that House Republicans said that they did not want to occur with Medicaid expansion.
Sexual Assault on Campus
We began this session under a cloud of tragedy. Hannah Graham, a 19 year old UVA student, was murdered this fall after going missing early one morning on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. We were all shocked to learn that the primary suspect in the case, Jesse Matthew, had complaints against him while he was enrolled at Christopher Newport University and Liberty University. The incidents did not result in criminal charges or convictions but demonstrated a history and pattern of dangerous behavior.
The University and Charlottesville communities were then stunned by the publication of a Rolling Stone article, since discredited, detailing a graphic sexual assault of a student and criticizing the University’s fraternity culture and the institutional response to such attacks. Even though the article did not accurately reflect the facts that had occurred, there was a tremendous feeling on the part of many that we had to address the issue of sexual assault on campuses.
Many families entrust their children to the Commonwealth at our institutions of higher learning. As a Commonwealth, we have an obligation to protect those students and make sure that they can receive an education in safety. A number of bills were introduced, including a couple that I sponsored, limiting the role of an institution of higher learning in the investigation of sexual assault allegations and requiring dismissals for criminal acts to be noted on a student’s academic record.
In the end, state legislative action was bound to a large extent by federal law. Privacy rights are protected, and colleges cannot release much information. The final compromise bill establishes a review team at each institution consisting of the Title IX officer, law enforcement and a student representative, requires certain higher education employees to report sexual assaults to the college’s Title IX officer within 72 hours of learning about the incident, and provides that law enforcement be notified of the incident if there is a risk to the public or the victim. Furthermore, if the incident would be chargeable as a felonious sexual assault, the law enforcement representative on the review team must consult with the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
In addition, we passed legislation requiring a notation on a student’s academic record from any public or private college or university if the student was suspended, dismissed, or withdrew while under investigation for a violation of the institution’s rules or student code of conduct. On a related note, the General Assembly also adopted legislation, sponsored by Delegates David Toscano and Rob Bell, expanding the number of misdemeanor convictions for which a DNA sample is required.
In light of the convictions last year of the former Governor and First Lady, there was a push to change the General Assembly’s ethics rules. The legislature overwhelming approved some modest reforms. The legislation maintains the current cap on unreported gifts to $50. Gifts that are worth between $50 and $100 have to be reported, and gifts over $100 in value are prohibited.
The bill imposes significant travel restrictions, not in where a person can go, but in the compensation or reimbursement one can expect for that travel. The legislation does not address campaign contributions or the use of campaign accounts, which have been of particular interest to many people who have reached out to me on ethics reform. I anticipate that the bills will be subject to significant amendment by the Governor.
In 1986, the most significant investment in transportation for many years occurred under Governor Gerald Baliles. The gasoline tax was increased, and a modern transportation formula was developed. Although the process worked very well for a number of years, beginning in the mid-1990s the formula stopped working effectively due in large part to changes in policy at the state level and population growth. In fact by 2009, the formula was not working at all and transportation funding was insufficient even for maintenance much less construction of new projects. Governor Warner tried to address it in 2004, but other needs were prioritized. Governor Kaine tried to address it numerous times but was turned away. In 2013, Governor McDonnell championed House Bill 2013, which for the first time in a generation raised significant money for transportation.
Legislative action to increase transportation revenues was followed in 2014 by House Bill 2, which aimed to depoliticize the process by which major projects are selected. My view has always been that projects ought to be determined by need rather than by politics. A legislator should not be able to get a project selected just because he has clout or seniority. This year, the administration, working with Delegate Chris Jones, introduced House Bill 1887 that resulted in a re-write of the funding formulas. I was honored to be on the subcommittee that reviewed and rewrote this bill in the Senate. We wanted to make sure that all parts of the state were served. The legislation for the first time ensures sustainable funding for transit, which is a significant source of transportation in Northern Virginia and a growing means of transportation in Hampton Roads, and also serves the interests of freight rail as well. I can tell you that House Bill 1887, while not perfect, does in fact meet the needs of all of Virginia.
After setting aside money for maintenance, 45 percent of the money will go into a fund for “State of Good Repair”, which is for bridges, tunnels and overpasses, statewide. I think we will see a significant amount of this money in the Staunton, Culpeper and Lynchburg districts. The remaining 55 percent is broken into two categories. Half of the money will be used for House Bill 2 projects of statewide or regional significance. The remaining half will go into the transportation districts for projects of regional or local significance. There is money for dirt roads and to ensure flexibility so that we can utilize technology to pave or otherwise surface these roads.
Of significance, the legislation takes the politics out of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. This is significant because in the past CTB members have felt obliged to support projects that the Governor who appointed them supported. Now, board members’ terms will be staggered and they can only be removed for cause. This bill, House Bill 1887 is significant and may be the most important legislation that passed in the 2015 Session.
Child Day Care
Over the past year or so there have been a number of high profile situations, some tragic, that have thrust into the spotlight the use of unregulated daycare in Virginia. A number of bills were introduced this year to address this issue. The compromise legislation will require family day home providers who watch 5 or more children to become licensed. Current law sets that limit at 6. The bill also requires unlicensed and unregistered family day home providers to provide written notice to parents that they are unregulated and to share information about a website maintained by the Department of Social Services that discusses the different types of child care available. The compromise also requires fingerprint criminal background checks for those operating family day homes, other adults living in the home, and volunteers at day care facilities. The whole idea is to do as much as possible to protect children and families but to acknowledge that much of this care is run by churches and other groups that are not regulated. The balance is between protecting children and allowing parents to raise their children as they see fit.
Those in the Charlottesville area remember all too clearly the details involving the UVA students who purchased bottled water and cookies at a local grocery store only to be confronted in their vehicle by a group of undercover ABC agents. The year prior and every year since, I have introduced a study resolution seeking to consolidate law enforcement functions under the Virginia State Police. While those efforts have failed, the General Assembly did adopt reforms this year of ABC. The legislation overhauls the supervisory structure at the Department and creates the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Authority as an independent agency governed by a five member board of directors. Those directors must hold a degree in business or a related field and have experience in business management. The members of the board, which will be paid significantly less than the current three sitting ABC Commissioners, can only be fired with cause. The push for reform was driven to a large extent by what happened in Charlottesville in 2013
For the second time in the 24 years that I have served in the General Assembly, the session ended a day early. Just as we did in 2000, business finished late on Friday evening in advance of the scheduled Saturday adjournment. While many may laud the legislature for being efficient, I am concerned that details may be overlooked when we rush our business. For example, the ethics bill is forty-nine pages and was changed multiple times on the last day of session. In fact, changes were written into the bill in the last hour before we voted. I voted for the bill, because in balance it did many good things, but I worry that we did not have enough time to vet the last minute edits.
While some bills have already been signed into law by the Governor, most are still in the final enrolling process and will soon head to the Governor for consideration. The General Assembly will reconvene in Richmond on April 15 to vote on the Governor’s amendments and vetoes. If you are concerned about any of the bills adopted by the legislature, I urge you to express your views to the Governor.
It is a great honor to continue to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. I can be reached at my legislative office in Charlottesville at 434-296-5491 or PO Box 5462; Charlottesville, VA 22905 or in Hot Springs at 540-839-2473. Or you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.