We are now past the midpoint of the 2020 General Assembly Session. Crossover — the day when the Senate must complete work on all Senate Bills and the House on all House Bills — occurred this past Tuesday. The bills then cross over to the other chamber for consideration. The Senate will spend the remainder of the session considering legislation passed by the House of Delegates.
Crossover day in the Senate was extraordinary. We convened for the daily floor session at 10 a.m. and did not adjourn until almost 1 a.m. Many of the toughest issues were put off until the end, so the day was full of debate and discussion. People who feel passion for issues want to argue about them, even if it is midnight.
Among the controversial issues taken up this week was whether to allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses. Proof of citizenship was not required to obtain a license prior to 2004. We changed the law after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Since this change, undocumented immigrants have been unable to obtain a license despite the need to be able to drive. While people have many views about immigration policy, the reality is that in the absence of immigration reform at the federal level we have community members who are living and working alongside us who do not have proper documentation. They will continue to work and continue to drive. Frankly, the traveling public is safer if every driver has passed a driving test and is insured.
Both the House and the Senate passed versions of a bill to provide driving credentials to immigrants who are undocumented. The House version provides for a regular driver’s license. Beginning October 1, under federal law, a person cannot board an airplane in the United States without a Real ID. Undocumented immigrants will not qualify for that type of credential. The Senate took a different approach, which I supported. The bill (SB 34) will allow someone without documentation to take a driving test and qualify for a driver privilege card. The card would be valid for one year and would be renewable.
Another issue we took up on crossover was the transportation funding bill. The Governor had proposed a gas tax increase of about 12 cents over the next three years. One of the most significant aspects of his transportation proposal was the historic investment in rail. I voted against the bill in committee because of concerns raised to me this past year by constituents in Highland, Bath, and Alleghany Counties as well as the City of Covington. My constituents in those areas were subjected to a tax increase to fund Interstate 81 last year even though I-81 does not go through those localities. In the end, the Administration agreed to amend the bill to send the money raised by last year’s tax increase to the transportation district that serves those localities. This amendment will mean that money raised by those dollars will be more likely to be spent in those communities. With that amendment, I supported the bill on the floor.
The state budget dominated much of my work this week and will continue to do so through this weekend. Frankly, the blueprint for state spending over the next two years is the major work of the 2020 Session of the General Assembly. Both the House and Senate budget committees, House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Appropriations, have been working diligently to finalize amendments to the two-year budget proposal offered by the Governor in December. Although this is the 29th year I’ve been in the General Assembly, this is the first year I’ve been intimately involved in developing our spending priorities. It has been an exhausting, but exhilarating, process.
I chair the Capital Outlay Subcommittee and serve on the Transportation Subcommittee and Health and Human Services Subcommittee. Because of my work in mental health policy over the last several years, this latter subcommittee has been critically important to me. I know that I’ve been able to make a difference in the discussions that will frame the Senate budget.
All of the work surrounding the budget will come to a head on Sunday afternoon when both the House and Senate money committees will meet and release their versions of the budget. While some final decisions remain, I predict the Senate budget will make historic investments in transportation and mental health services. The full Senate and House will vote on their respective versions of the budget next Thursday.
Every day brings dozens of bills and discussions. I appreciate the many communications – letters, emails and phone calls – that I’ve received from my constituents over the past month. It continues to be an honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia, and I look forward to your continued input during these last three weeks of the legislative session. I can be reached at [email protected] or at (804) 698-7525.