The first full week of the General Assembly is now under our belts. A few significant bills have reached the floor, but most are awaiting action in committee. The committees are running full bore. Visitors from around the Commonwealth fill the halls trying to meet their legislators and talk about issues of concern to them, but often legislators are running from commitment to commitment. The constitutional limit on the session does not allow for breaks.
Under Virginia’s Constitution, the General Assembly meets for 60 days in even-numbered years and 30 days in odd years. The sessions can be extended by a 2/3 vote of the General Assembly; traditionally the short session is extended to 46 days. The daily count includes weekends, holidays, snow days and every day until we adjourn. In Virginia, odd years are election years, which can drive the introduction of more bills. While we do not typically work on weekends, we do not stop for holidays or bad weather. This can present real challenges during these winter months. Some legislators may have difficulty getting back to Richmond from their districts, or even getting to the Capitol from within the city limits.
The legislature could address this in a number of ways. We could work on weekends, which is not unprecedented. Back in the ’90s, House of Delegates committees met frequently on weekends. Occasionally we held floor sessions on Sundays. This approach would cause some people discomfort but would not require constitutional change, unlike other alternatives. We could simply write into the Constitution that the weekends do not count, which would extend the session out a few weeks. Or we could just extend the session to 60 days every year. Every odd year, we try to cram 60 days’ worth of work into 46 days.
This past week saw the Senate pass legislation on a 26-14 vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The bill now moves to the House of Delegates for consideration. All along, I felt this bill would pass the Senate if it came to floor. The real test will be in the House of Delegates. The primary effort will be to get it out of committee, as I expect it has the support of a majority of delegates.
One significant change in the Senate this year was the adoption of a 25 bill limit. In addition to the bills a legislator is personally interested in, we carry bills for the Governor’s office and state agencies, for the Attorney General’s office, at the request of advocacy groups, and on behalf of constituents and local governments. While I had a number of other legislative proposals I was exploring, the bill limit simply did not permit me to move forward on all of them.
As I did last year, I sponsored legislation to address some of the concerns raised by the tragic events of August 12, 2017. One bill (SB 1482), which was requested by the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, would have added those jurisdictions to the list of localities permitted to restrict the carrying of loaded firearms in public spaces. I worked this year with Attorney General Mark Herring on the second bill (SB 1473), which sought to give local governments the authority to restrict firearms at permitted events. Both bills died in committee on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the Committee on Transportation considered three bills I am carrying this year. Senate Bill 1481 will modernize the commercial driver’s license process and bring us in line with federal requirements. Senate Bill 1474 converts the special license plate for the International Association of Fire Fighters to a revenue sharing plate that benefits their charitable foundation. Both of those bills passed out of Committee unanimously. The third bill, SB 1487, arose out of a meeting at The BridgeLine with staff and clients. The bill simply requires DMV to add traumatic brain injury to a list of medical conditions that drivers can add as a designation on their licenses. The bill generated a great deal of discussion and passed out of committee on a 7-4 vote. All three bills will be voted on by the full Senate early next week.
Yesterday afternoon, I presented legislation to require Mental Health First Aid training for our teachers and other school personnel as designated by local school boards. The subcommittee did not recommend reporting the bill out of concern that the cost was too much for the benefit achieved. In a time when we are worried about school safety, it only makes sense for us to give our teachers the tools they need to recognize and triage mental health crises when they occur in the classroom. Teachers are already required to take first aid classes, and I think this is a logical extension of that requirement. The full Education and Health Committee will take final action on the bill next week.
This week also saw the introduction of budget amendments. I sponsored amendments to create a state park in Highland County, provide additional funding for the Natural Bridge State Park, and to meet a number of objectives of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century as we strive to modernize our public mental health system. A list of all of the amendments is available here. We have a long way to go in terms of finalizing the budget.
It continues to be an honor for me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact the office at (804) 698-7525 or by email at [email protected] .