With a week to go until the scheduled February 28 adjournment, the Virginia General Assembly is moving steadily along. From what I hear, few areas of controversy remain in the budget deliberations. I still think it is possible, though not as likely as I previously thought, that we adjourn a day or two early.
In past columns I wrote about measures the Senate adopted to fund pay increases for state troopers and sheriff deputies. The legislation was unique in that it included a revenue source to address the issue of salary compression. Some supervisors make less than those they supervise, and troopers who are being hired might earn more than some who have been on the job for years. As I thought, the House of Delegates may not be as receptive to the idea of a dedicated source of funding to address the issue. Rather, the House is coming up with money from other general fund sources to address salary issues for all state employees. Without question, the issue of salary compression is not unique to state police, and I am hopeful the budget conferees develop a compromise compensation package that recognizes the hard work and dedication of our public workforce.
My mental health bills have run into trouble in the House of Delegates. Over the past 15 months, I have been dedicated to raising standards for mental health treatment and for ensuring that quality treatment is available in every corner of the Commonwealth. Last year, Delegate Rob Bell and I introduced bills requiring DBHDS to study the requirements for emergency evaluators, including qualifications, training standards and oversight and to make recommendations to improve the safety of the individual subject to emergency custody orders and the public. The bills I introduced this year, Senate Bills 1408, 1409, and 1410, encompass the recommendations included in the report issued on December 1 in response to that directive. All three were designed to improve standards for those who perform the evaluations and ensure that DBHDS has the tools they need to pursue quality across the Commonwealth.
Nevertheless, the bills have stalled in the House of Delegates amid fears about the cost of legislation and concerns raised by change resistant community services boards. DBHDS is the state agency that contracts with and oversees our CSBs, and I trust the judgment of DBHDS professionals to determine what standards should be in place for emergency evaluators. Not to be deterred, I am looking for other routes to continue to make these measures law and improve the quality of care of individuals in crisis situations.
It should be noted that work of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century, which I chair, continues. The evaluation piece of mental health services is but a small, albeit important, piece of the puzzle.
Other legislation I have carried relating to mental health has met with more success. The Senate and House of Delegates have passed bills to require hospitals and facilities to update the psychiatric bed registry as soon as bed availability changes and to improve the transportation options available in crisis situations. A third bill sought to improve law enforcement access to information about past history of involuntary commitment should be voted on by the House early next week. When responding to emergency, life or death situations, this information can be very useful to law enforcement in responding to the scene. All three bills were recommended by the Governor’s Mental Health Task Force and subsequently vetted by the Joint Subcommittee.
Of interest to some, a bill that failed this morning was one that would have reduced the food to mixed beverage ratio in restaurants. The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control enforcement of the ratio has been inconsistent. At present, the ratio does not even include beer or wine sales. In my view, the issue needs more study and is not ripe for consideration at this point.
Many people have contacted my office about issues associated with the proposed natural gas pipeline that would cross the Counties of Highland, Augusta, and Nelson, as well as other bills related to Dominion. Senator Emmett Hanger sponsored legislation, which I co-sponsored, to repeal the 2004 law that grants natural gas companies the ability to survey land, over landowner objections, for a proposed pipeline. That legislation was not successful. Frankly, I was not surprised by the outcome, but not for the reasons many people suspect. The Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from taking up issues regarding private controversies, and tied to that provision is a tradition of the legislature not to consider bills that may affect pending litigation. There have been a number of suits filed in both state and federal court regarding the pipeline and the underlying issue of the bills, the right to survey. I remain convinced that the 2004 legislation is unconstitutional, but I was not surprised that the legislation stalled in light of the litigation.
Legislation pursued by Dominion to remove oversight of their profit for eight years in exchange for a five year partial rate freeze has passed and is on the Governor’s desk awaiting action. I voted against the legislation because, looking at the recent past and the current earnings of Dominion and American Electric Power, the two utilities affected by the bill, there is a significant indication that ratepayers are entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds. While it is true that it would likely only amount to a few dollars per customer, that is still a significant issue.
Energy is an issue that we all have to think about very carefully. The past few days have seen record cold throughout the Commonwealth. We must have a consistent and sustainable supply of electric power to provide the heat necessary on these cold days. It gives one pause and ought to cause us all to reflect on the discussions regarding energy production.
The end is in sight of the 2015 Session of the General Assembly. I will soon be home and back at work in my law practice. If I can be of service to you in any way, please send me an email at [email protected] . If you prefer to send a letter or call, I can be reached at PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218 or (804) 698-7525 through February 28. After adjournment, my legislative office can be reached at PO Box 5462, Charlottesville, VA 22905 or (434) 296-5491.