While the peaceful transition of power occurs amid celebration and protest in Washington, the work goes on here in Richmond. We have about five weeks left to finish work on the multitude of bills that come up and to balance the budget.
What that means is that a single bill does not get much time for consideration or opportunity for meaningful discussion. That is one reason why I emphasize that legislative success sometimes takes several years to achieve. It is difficult to introduce a new topic at the beginning of session and expect results that year.
A couple of examples pertain to our state park system. For a number of years, I have focused on developing a state park in Highland County. Not only would a park bring lots of visitors to one of the most beautiful, pristine parts of our Commonwealth, it would provide economic opportunities. We must look for economic opportunity in rural Virginia any way we can. However, this year, when we are facing a $1.26 billion shortfall, is not the year to move forward with that idea. For the past two or three years I have sponsored budget amendments to keep the idea in the public eye. While I am not giving up, I did not put forward an amendment this year. They will hear from us next year.
Contrast that with the Biscuit Run Recreational Area in Albemarle County. The land has already been acquired. In fact, the state has owned the property since 2009. People have been led to believe that the park would be developed and opened by now. Last year Governor McAuliffe included a significant amount of funding in his budget to fully develop the park. The General Assembly opted to allocate those funds elsewhere. At the behest of a constituent, I asked the Department of Conservation and Recreation to come up with a proposal for a bare-bones opening so that people at least can hike in the area. DCR came back with a very expensive $3.7 million plan. A pared down approach that simply provides a road upgrade to access the park and a primitive parking lot will cost over $2 million. Even in this tough year, I decided to submit the budget amendments. People have been led to believe that the park would be open by now, so I felt an obligation to try to secure funds to at least allow the public to use the area for recreation. You can review all of the budget amendment requests here.
The work of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century is moving forward this session. Senators George Barker, Emmett Hanger, and John Cosgrove are carrying bills that I am cosponsoring. Those bills are being advanced in the House of Delegates by Delegates Rob Bell, Peter Farrell, and Scott Garrett. There are budget amendments that accompany some of those proposals. While I do not have any illusion that everything we want will pass this year, I am hopeful that we can begin the process of remaking the community service boards by increasing the mandated services in order to start this transition from a crisis-driven system to one that is focused on prevention and long-term recovery. That is an expensive proposition, but we are fortunate the Governor’s recommendations dovetail with ours.
Because we know that the community service boards are not the only thing we need to focus on, Senator Janet Howell and Delegate Margaret Ransone are carrying budget amendments to beef up our commitment to permanent supportive housing. Housing has been shown to be one of the best ways to provide stability to a person who has struggled with mental illness. I am committed to taking a multifaceted approach to try to solve this very difficult problem. In addition to the legislators already mentioned, I have appreciated the hard work of Delegates Vivian Watts, Joseph Yost, and Luke Torian for their work as members of the Subcommittee.
A couple bills this week grabbed my attention early. Senate Bill 1055 harkens back to an unpleasant time in our nation’s history. It makes unlawful assembly a jailable offense. Because I believe this is aimed at quelling civil disobedience, I will vote ‘no’. SB 865 will allow adults to provide children with switchblades, dirks and Bowie knives. Because I cannot imagine a useful purpose with such a bill and have not yet heard strong arguments for a need to change the law in this regard, I will likewise oppose it.
It continues to be my high honor to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. 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. If you are interested in watching committee meetings, you can access the meetings this year through the live streaming efforts of Anna Scholl and her team at Progress Virginia through Eyes on Richmond. You may also watch the daily floor sessions of the Senate and the House of Delegates every day.
I look forward to hearing from you and value your input.