The 2018 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly is underway. This long session, which will run 60 days, is remarkable in at least three aspects.
First, every four years a changing of the guard takes place. Governor McAuliffe gave his farewell speech on January 10, at the end of the opening day of the 2018 Session. He laid out his accomplishments and his suggestions for the future. Governor McAuliffe and I have had our differences, as any two individuals would, but he’s been a good governor and good for Virginia. Life must be lived with urgency. This is particularly true for our governors. You only have four years. Terry McAuliffe has served with more enthusiasm and energy and a greater sense of urgency than any governor since Jerry Baliles.
On Saturday Ralph Northam will be inaugurated as the 73rd Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ralph has been a friend of mine for many years, and I look forward to working with him.
The second substantial change this year is a direct result of the elections last fall. Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates. The dramatic shift leaves just a two-seat majority for the Republicans. Most of the Republican members of the House have only served while holding onto a large majority. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics play out, and I am hopeful we see a renewed bipartisan spirit in Richmond.
The third shift this year is that the General Assembly Building, where I have worked in Richmond for the past 26 years, is being torn down. Legislators and staff have moved to the southern end of Capitol Square into the Pocahontas Building, which most recently housed the Office of the Attorney General. This temporary, smaller building will house the legislature for the next four years while the GAB is torn down and the new building constructed. While this is a mild inconvenience for those of us privileged to serve in the legislature, I am more concerned about the challenges that will face those who travel to Richmond to participate in the process and meet with their elected officials. Locating the building and learning how to maneuver the space takes some time.
Although we adjourned back in April, our legislative work continued. I accomplished some goals that did not require legislation. First, working with the Supreme Court of Virginia, I began to address the intersection of the mental health and criminal justice systems by incorporating mental health training into education for criminal defense lawyers and for the judiciary. This is critical because 16 to 24 percent of people who are incarcerated have a diagnosis of serious mental illness. When you include the number of people with other mental health diagnoses and substance use disorders, the implications are significant. The education will help everyone within our judicial system understand mental illness and ensure the appropriate handling of cases involving those with behavioral health issues.
A second project I worked on and was able to help resolve relates to Biscuit Run State Park in Albemarle County. Delegate Toscano and I worked in recent years to secure funding to allow us to open the park to the public. The General Assembly rejected a proposal of the Governor to fully develop the Park, so we worked to have minimal funding to at least allow the community to hike and explore the property. When that effort failed, we knew we needed to explore other options if we wanted the park opened anytime in the near future. With leadership from the Board of Supervisors, and Rick Randolph in particular, an idea to partner with the local government was developed. Just last week, the Governor visited Charlottesville to sign paperwork leasing the park to Albemarle County. Public dollars secured this land nine years ago, and now we have a path forward so that the community can enjoy it.
My bills this session cover the waterfront. My focus this year remains on our continued work to reform Virginia’s mental health system. The Joint Subcommittee I chair put forward budget recommendations this year to expand discharge planning for inmates with mental illness, to improve transportation for those under a temporary detention order, to increase access to care using telemental health, and to ensure more law enforcement officers have training to help de-escalate situations. We are also working on broad goals of implementing STEP Virginia by requiring same day access and integrated primary health care in all community services boards and aligning the structure and financing of our system with a focus on community services and improved utilization of hospitals. While we have made so much progress over the past four years, the list of unfinished tasks and unmet needs remains long.
Among my other priorities are bills related to the tragic events of August 12. I sponsored legislation to strengthen our laws on impersonating military personnel, give Charlottesville and Albemarle the right to prevent the open carry of certain firearms in public, extend to all localities the ability to limit firearms at public events, and impose civil liability on those who inflict harm on bystanders.
Over the fall, I heard from many constituents faced with outlandish increases in health care premiums for policies on the exchange. The instability in the health insurance market is largely driven by the uncertainty in Washington DC, so we are limited as to what we can do at the state level to drive down costs. Nonetheless, I have filed four bills to try and offer some relief.
I also have bills to amend the Charter of the Town of Iron Gate and a budget amendment to try again to establish a state park in Highland County. The full list of bills that I have filed thus far is available. Budget amendments are due today by 5 p.m. and will show up on the system next week.
As always, it remains a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. I appreciate your trust. If I can ever be of service, answer questions, or help you visit during the 2018 Session of the General Assembly, please contact me at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected].