Groundhog Day was yesterday, which means we are very close to the crossover of the 2017 legislative session. Crossover, which comes shortly after the midpoint of each session, is the point by which the Senate must act on all senate bills and the House on all house bills. The bills then cross over to the other side for consideration.
At the beginning of each session each legislator has goals they want to accomplish. I am no different. One hundred forty legislators sponsored thousands of bills this year and had policies they sought to advance. Now however we are in the heart of the sausage-making process, and many of those dreams have been dashed. By next Tuesday, everything but the budget will cross over from each side to the other. The pace now is frenetic.
Many of the bills you have written or called about are still active. The bill that would limit the ability to develop broadband in many of our rural communities is moving forward. Frankly the bill has been rewritten multiple times. The new language is an improvement, but it still imposes rules from Richmond on local zoning authority. Because I don’t like top-down management, I will vote no.
Another bill that generated some interest will allow a utility company that buries its lines to recover those costs over a period of years. To me, this is an issue that should be settled by the State Corporation Commission. However, I voted for the bill. In recent years, we have seen damaging storms, including the derecho in 2012 and hurricanes, that have knocked power out for significant periods of time for Virginians. Our dependence on electricity continues to grow, and it makes sense to bury the lines. In my view, the benefits outweigh the costs.
While hundreds of bills are still moving through the process, many bills generating significant interest have died. The legislation, Senate Bills 1291 and 1292, that would have allowed fracking chemicals to be kept secret from the public died in committee. The public has a right to know which chemicals are being used during this process. Of course, the Virginia version of the “bathroom bill” was killed quickly during the first days of session. The Senate defeated legislation this week to create a Secretary for Coastal Protection and Flooding Adaptation, to require employers to provide paid sick leave and equal pay for equal work, and to allow everyone to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
The Privileges and Elections Committee had a full docket this week with mixed results. While the Committee advanced legislation to reform our redistricting process, a resolution to put forward a constitutional amendment to permanently bar all violent felons from voting and remove executive authority to restore rights also passed. The resolutions are awaiting a final vote in the Senate.
On the mental health front, I’ve discussed many times my concerns about the tragic deaths of Natasha McKenna and Jamycheal Mitchell. The mental health task force that I’ve been privileged to lead for the past three years has been deliberating on how best to review and respond to such deaths. Delegate Rob Bell took the lead on this, and we developed a legislative proposal that specified the authority of the Board of Corrections to review jail deaths and requested funding to hire staff. It seems like a reasonable step forward. The regional jails and sheriffs participated in the discussion and development of this proposal. However meaningful legislation has so far hit a wall. The few dollars that would be necessary to hire additional staff have been scooped up for pay raises for law enforcement. The session is not over and budget deliberations remain, but we may have to wait another year before we make real progress.
A couple of bills that I introduced were the subject of debate and close votes this past week. At the request of a Charlottesville constituent, I introduced legislation to allow mental health professionals to sign an application for an individual to obtain disabled parking placard. That issue stirred unimaginable controversy and ended in a tie vote in the Senate of Virginia. The lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, broke the tie in favor of the bill.
Another bill I introduced on behalf of the Governor would allow someone convicted of a felony to petition the Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence when there is biological evidence that shows the person is innocent. Right now the writ of actual innocence is only available to those people who were convicted of Class 1 or Class 2 felonies or who pled not guilty to another felony. This bill would make it available to all felons. The bill drew a lot of opposition and passed the Senate this week on a 24-16 vote. The bill now goes to the House of Delegates, which has already defeated a similar bill.
The Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees will release their budgets this weekend. Those budgets are expected to reflect the shortfall we are facing and highlight the priorities of the committees. With the focus on pay raises, I worry about other pressing needs. I expect some people will be disappointed, but I look forward to seeing the final product of their work on Sunday.
The 2017 legislative session is rapidly passing. Time flies whether or not you are having fun. It continues to be my honor to serve you. Please contact my office at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected] if you have concerns about legislation pending before the General Assembly or need help with a state agency. I look forward to hearing from you and value your input.