April 15 was more than Tax Day this year. Indeed, the legislature came back into session on Tax Day to consider the Governor’s amendments and vetoes to legislation passed during the 2015 General Assembly Session. Typically Senators and Delegates return to Richmond to consider handfuls of amendments and a few vetoes. This year was atypical for a number of reasons.
For the first time since 1998, the budget was signed without amendment. The Governor’s signing the budget as passed by the legislature certainly does not mean the Governor viewed the document as a perfect funding plan. Politics is about compromise, and I think the Governor felt the budget was the best we could do given the political realities in Richmond. The lack of amendment signifies that the Governor wants to develop a good working relationship with the legislature. Hopefully this olive branch will bear fruit for both parties.
The General Assembly considered amendments, most of which were uncontroversial, to almost 70 bills. The most discussed and debated amendments related to privacy issues. The Governor amended significantly the bills seeking to limit the use of drones by police. Those amendments were rejected by the General Assembly in favor of people’s privacy. There was also a bill that limited the ability of law enforcement to arbitrarily collect data obtained by license plate readers. The bill basically would have codified an Attorney General’s opinion. The Governor’s amendment to expand the length of time such data can be kept was rejected as well.
The Governor also vetoed 17 bills. The vetoes were generally controversial but none of them were overturned. In fact, in some cases there was not even an attempt to overturn the veto.
So the General Assembly session for 2015 is now history. However, the work goes on. I work as a lawyer, but my work as a legislator will continue for the remainder of this year as well. I sit on a couple of important committees that will be meeting throughout the year.
The first is the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability. While the name sounds dull, the work interests me for a couple of important reasons. First, there has been a lot of distrust about the use of transportation dollars in many situations over the years. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that the previous Administration essentially threw away $300 million of taxpayer money on a public private partnership to improve U.S. Route 460 between Petersburg and Portsmouth. This commission will oversee the remaking of the way these public private partnerships work.
Second, and importantly, since 2013 we have made significant investments in transportation, and the work of this commission will provide an important level of oversight over the process that has developed since then. In 2013, we passed House Bill 2313 which provided for the first time since 1986 significant new investments for transportation. I have discussed in this space many times House Bill 2313, its attributes and its limitations. Significantly, it provides money for the maintenance of highways thereby freeing up other money for construction, but its contribution to the construction budget is limited.
In 2014, House Bill 2 passed which aims at taking the politics out of deciding how the money is spent. This year, House Bill 1887 reforms the funding formula in a way that I think improves the process. A healthy transportation system is a key component of promoting economic growth in all parts of Virginia, and I want to continue to be an active participant in these vital discussions.
Mental Health Policy
The second major policy area that I will continue to work on through the interim is mental health. I have stated many times in the past that my goal is to create in Virginia a model public system for the provision of mental health. I want a system that very simply is there for Virginians who need it in every part of the Commonwealth. We have an overwhelming task to get that accomplished by the end of 2017.
This work flows out of Senate Joint Resolution 47, which I sponsored during the 2014 Session to create a four year joint subcommittee. I chair the subcommittee, which is now in its second year. This year we will meet in June, September and November. During each two-day meeting, we will meet, solicit public comment, and hear from experts as well as tour various mental health facilities and programs across Virginia. Our task for this year is to produce an interim report in December that focuses on the basic question of what services, at a minimum, should our public system of mental healthcare provide.
That is a big question. We are divided into three workgroups to try to come up with answers to that question. Del. Robert Bell of Albemarle County chairs the civil commitment workgroup. Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County chairs the workgroup on the continuum of care. Del. Joseph Yost of Giles County chairs the workgroup on special populations. Each one of those workgroups has important and daunting work ahead.
While we have tweaked our mental health laws over the past decade, the most important question is whether the General Assembly will have the political will to right the ship and create a model system of care – a public mental health system we can all be proud of, that other states and the federal government can emulate.
I hope that each of you stay engaged with both of these important issues and keep in touch with my office and with your other legislators. It is my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If you have questions, do not hesitate to contact me. 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 [email protected].