We are rapidly approaching the midpoint of the 2016 General Assembly Session. In legislative lingo, the midpoint is called the crossover, that period when Senate bills crossover to the House of Delegates and House bills crossover to the Senate.

To this point, much of the work has been handled by committees that meet around the clock. My committees shifted some this year. I am no longer on the General Laws and Technology and the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committees, but I was appointed to the Courts of Justice Committee. Courts meets twice a week and handles a large volume of bills. I continue to serve on the Privileges and Elections and Transportation Committees.

The problem has been that on Wednesdays, Courts typically meets all afternoon. In fact, one week we did not complete work until after 9:00 p.m. Transportation meets the same afternoon. As a result, I miss the work of the Transportation Committee. I am not the only member with such a conflict. I carefully review the docket and materials sent to me and leave a proxy with another member to ensure my voice counts on those bills.

Current Issues in the General Assembly

Aside from the topics I’ve covered in past updates, I have been actively working on a number of issues in the Virginia General Assembly:

Recognizing conservation officers

For many years in an effort to recognize the work of conservation officers at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, I’ve tried to increase retirement benefits and give them parity with similarly situated state employees. This year I introduced legislation to accomplish this goal again. The bill was carried over to 2017.

Statue of Limitations for prosecution of sexual misdemeanors involving children

I sponsored legislation for the third year in a row to lengthen the statute of limitations for prosecutions of misdemeanors of a sexual nature involving children to a year past the 18th birthday of the child victim. Typically, statutes of limitations on misdemeanors are a year from the date of the offense. This year, after receiving scrutiny and support from the State Crime Commission during the interim, the bill will pass.

State Park in Highland County

Another project of several years has been to organize and develop a state park in Highland County. I once again introduced a budget amendment to accomplish this goal. This year might be the right year since the Governor included a bond package in his introduced spending plan. However, there are rumblings about long-term revenue projections of our budget. The bond itself is in some jeopardy. Last week I had a chance to make my case for a state park in Highland County, and I will continue to press the issue.

Tax credit for farmers who donate to food banks

I am privileged to work with First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe and Delegate Ben Cline of Rockbridge County to carry important legislation this year to create a tax credit for farmers who donate food crops to food banks. This could help stock food banks at a time when they are having to adjust for the increasing costs of food and declining federal subsidies, in addition to helping local farmers.

Loan forgiveness for public mental health workers

The work of the Mental Health Joint Subcommittee goes on through the end of 2017, and our major work is still ahead of us. However, this year, I introduced a bill along with Delegate Joseph Yost of Giles County to create a fund for loan forgiveness. The program is intended to increase the number of individuals seeking to enter this field and also to attract and retain workers within our public mental health system – our local community services boards or the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The Education and Health Committee passed and referred the bill to the Senate Finance Committee due to the $2.5 million cost associated with the proposal. The bill is scheduled to be heard on Monday afternoon in subcommittee.

“Free fishing days”

This year I worked with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to make “free fishing days,” which the Department uses to encourage people to fish and to learn about Virginia’s diverse fishery, actually free. If Senate Bill 349 passes, streams stocked with trout will be included in these special days.

Addressing the rapid decline of pollinators

People who are familiar with my work know I have been concerned for a number of years about the rapid decline of pollinators. Pollination is critical to the agricultural economy and our food supply. This year I introduced legislation to create a workgroup, including various state agencies and the beekeeping and agricultural communities, to develop a balanced approach and strategies to address the decline. Thus far the various stakeholders have not been able to develop a consensus, and I am hopeful passage of this bill will be a catalyst for results. The bill passed the Senate with unanimous support and is awaiting action in the House of Delegates.

Changing the way judges are selected

I’ve worked on a couple of issues this year involving judgeships. As I referenced several weeks ago, I have introduced measures to increase the judgeships in the 25th Circuit and the 16th Circuit. I have also introduced legislation, again something I have worked on for a long time, to change the way judges are selected from the highly politicized process we have now to one based on merit.

You may track all legislation with the Legislative Information System or at Richmond Sunlight. As I have explained to many people, legislators make the best decision based on the information they have available. Please never assume I have the best information. If you have an idea or input about an issue before the General Assembly, let me hear from you.

It continues to be honor to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. If I may be of assistance or you would like to visit, please contact us at (804) 698-7525 or district25@senate.virginia.gov.